You can buy weed gummy bears in Colorado and vape cannabis in Oregon, yet US scientists are struggling to get their hands on the stuff for medical research. This could soon change: the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has announced that it hopes to reach a decision on the legal status of cannabis by July.
Although states have their own classifications and laws governing the possession and sale of marijuana, the federal government classes it as a Schedule 1 drug, a category typically reserved for dangerous drugs that offer no medical benefits. This creates significant hurdles for scientists interested in marijuana research.
A letter signed by eight US senators last year urged the government to craft a new policy that would support expanded research on its potential medical benefits. For example, additional research could help pin down how marijuana affects conditions like depression and non-neuropathic pain, and whether it could help people with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
“One thing I hear loud and clear from everybody, even the most conservative lawmakers, is that we need more research,” says David Casarett, an end-of-life care researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Stoned: A doctor’s case for medical marijuana. “Rescheduling is perhaps the single most important thing the government can do to encourage more research.”
Currently, a scientist who wants to do research on marijuana must undergo a lengthy approval process. If approved, they must procure all their samples from the University of Mississippi, which runs the only cannabis farm sanctioned by the federal government (shown in photo, above). There are also concerns about funding to consider: some agencies won’t support research looking to show marijuana’s positive effects.
All in all, that has made research on marijuana difficult to pull off. Only eight scientists received shipments from the farm in 2015 – about average for any given year. This suggests that of the 265 scientists registered to conduct marijuana research in the US, only a few are actually managing to do it.
If marijuana were downgraded to Schedule 2, then it could make the road easier for scientists seeking federal approval for their research. It “would signal to the medical community that [government agencies] are ready to take medical marijuana seriously“, says a report from the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington DC.
Still, supporters shouldn’t get too excited, cautions Robert Capecchi of the Marijuana Policy Project, a non-profit based in Washington DC. Past petitions asking the DEA to reclassify the drug have been stalled or denied outright.
“I would be surprised if they made a determination other than that marijuana should remain in Schedule 1,” he says. “I just don’t see it happening.”
As part of the decision, the DEA says that the Food and Drug Administration is conducting an extensive review of the science behind marijuana. It’s somewhat ironic because the current structure makes it difficult for scientists to conduct rigorous trials that would prove its medical benefits and make it more acceptable to the government, says Capecchi.
“They’re looking for studies that the law also prevents from being conducted, which is the really frustrating thing,” he says. “It’s this weird catch-22.”
Original article published by Aviva Rutkin in the New Scientist: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2084036-dea-mellowing-out-on-cannabis-would-make-medical-research-easier.
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