Medical cannabis journal has faced challenges from pushback to pandemic, but is eager to relaunch

If it’s an article about cannabis as a medicine that appeared any time over the past decade, Ken Watkins might not have read it — but he can probably tell you how it ends.

“When there was an article that was almost favorable to it, it would usually conclude with, ‘But there’s no research or studies available,’” he said. “That’s just not true. You can do a PubMed search and come up with enough cannabis-based studies to keep you busy for a year.”

To bring more attention to the studies that have been done already — and for the many more research papers to come — the American Journal of Endocannabinoid Medicine is relaunching after a pandemic-inspired hiatus as the country’s only printed, peer-reviewed journal focusing on this emerging area of medical research.

Watkins is serving as the publisher of the journal, which first launched in late 2019. Scott Rudder, a former Republican assemblyman from Burlington County and a recent president of a New Jersey cannabis trade association, is the publication’s chief strategy officer.

Even as a state such as New Jersey moved to create and then recently expand medical cannabis programs, Rudder was convinced there was a disconnect between the excitement about these policies and the way the medical community greeted them.

“There was such enthusiasm about the social justice aspect and other things that go along with this, but I really saw a lack of information and knowledge among the medical base, the doctors,” he said. “To really get into the greater impacts of cannabis as a medicine, you have to address that. Once we get to legalization, we still have 83 years of prohibition we’re up against.”

Doctors grew up alongside the same slogans as everyone else, in other words. Hence why many just said no when it came time to consider prescribing medical cannabis, Rudder said.

But the reluctance doesn’t begin or end at the individual provider level. Regulatory agencies have also bemoaned a lack of credible cannabis research data — the sort that the American Journal of Endocannabinoid Medicine is now trying to compile and disseminate.

The first FDA-approved drug that contained the marijuana-derived cannabidiol, or CBD, was in 2018. It was also the first FDA approval of a drug for the rare Dravet syndrome, which begins in infancy and may cause children to suffer dozens or even hundreds of seizures per day.

Rudder explained that research for the drug, Epidiolex, had to be done out of the country by the U.K.-based GW Research Ltd., which then submitted paperwork to the University of Maryland, which then submitted paperwork to the FDA.

“That’s how convoluted the current process is so that these children don’t have to go through hundreds of seizures a day,” Rudder said.

The hope is that normalizing this new form of medicine with a traditional medical journal could enable that to change — even if there’s some acknowledgment that will take a long time.

Rudder believes there’s a reason to push for it; there are indications that medical cannabis can be utilized in other areas in which there are few available or effective therapeutics. Parents of children with autism, he said, often run into that.

“There’s not a lot of drugs out there that can deal with their anxiety or help them with their focus,” he said. “Knowing that, and knowing how cannabis is being shown to have benefits for people on the spectrum — that’s a very powerful thing.”

A study published in 2019 established a link between the use of medical cannabis and behavioral improvements — reportedly relieving symptoms of depression, recklessness, tics and anger — in youth with autism.

The goal of the journal is to package science like that — as well as other studies, such as on the apparent connections between the use of cannabinoids and brain health of NFL athletes — in the sort of peer-reviewed medical journal format doctors are already familiar with.

Watkins, who has had a career in medical publishing, said they want to be a doctor’s top source of new, trusted information about this area of medicine.

“The reception so far has been very warm from physicians,” he said. “Of course, they’re naturally inquisitive. And, for some, they were never taught about the endocannabinoid system or have even heard of it. It was only discovered in the ’90s.”

The endocannabinoid system is a cell-signaling system in the body that was identified by researchers exploring the effects of THC, one of the best-known cannabinoids — compounds found in cannabis.

The disposition of doctors recently has been to learn more about this system, its influence in the body and how it can be healed, Watkins said.

And, at the end of the day, they’re on a quest not to lose patients.

“If you have a patient you’ve had for 10 or 15 years and wants to come to you to have a conversation about CBD or transitioning off of certain pharmaceuticals, you don’t want to be caught flatfooted or be dismissive,” Watkins said. “We’ve heard of patients made to feel like criminals by asking their doctor about it.”

Rather than badgering doctors as well as researchers about medical cannabis as the spread of COVID-19 ravaged health care systems last year, the American Journal of Endocannabinoid Medicine’s leaders put their publication on a temporary hold.

The usual peer-review process was dragging — and they knew they weren’t the first priority.

“So, we spent the summer going back and fine-tuning from an aesthetic standpoint the look and feel of it to be like a traditional medical journal,” Watkins said. “Overall, this just allowed us to look at what we were doing and expand on it in different directions.”

The American Journal of Endocannabinoid Medicine, which is spearheaded by editor-in-chief Dr. Jahan Marcu, added during its downtime Dr. Uma Dhanabalan to its editorial roster, one of the leading advocates and experts on medical cannabis.

With the relaunch of the publication this month, the team feels equipped to engage a global audience.

“We want to make this publication as great as it can be,” Watkins said, adding that the most important thing will be reaching as many doctors’ hands as possible — and winning some hearts and minds in the process.