Friday March 3, 2017
By Morgan Smith
It’s the perfect Catch 22. Cannabis is on the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) Schedule 1 drug list — determining that it has “no currently accepted medical use.” But because cannabis is federally illegal, the scientific community must get approval from the DEA to conduct legitimate cannabis research and determine any medicinal value.
There’s been a lot of back and forth when it comes to regulation, limitations and classification for cannabis research. And the fact that medical use is illegal on a federal level, but legal in 29 states — including the District of Columbia — adds to the murky waters of where, what and how scientists and researchers may go about conducting legitimate research.
Existing research already shows that marijuana is effective in treating a number of medical conditions like chronic pain, nausea from chemotherapy and symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Additionally, many studies show benefits for patients with epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder, but there’s just not enough examination and analysis to provide definitive conclusions.
Current Cannabis Research Conditions
To conduct clinical research right now, you need a DEA license and approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But where do you legally get the test-worthy weed? You have to go through the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) drug supply program.
For nearly 50 years, the University of Mississippi was the only place to get your hands on research-grade marijuana. However, the DEA announced an expansion of grow sites late last year, amending the current policy restriction. Researchers will now be able to investigate a multitude of strains at various potency levels from several different locations, instead of the same crop at the same spot.
It’s a step forward, but there’s still confusion around how long it will take for these new grow locations to be authorized, as well as where and how growers are legally required to obtain seeds. There’s also a funding problem: Scientists say there’s a “general lack of money available” for a non-pharmaceutical, plant-based substance.
NIDA says the needs of researchers are evolving as the “landscape of marijuana products” grows within the industry. And as they sanction other grow sites and growers, additional varieties and strains with different levels of terpenes, cannabinoids and potency levels will be added to the mix. But some still say that the NIDA will deny any request aiming to confirm positive benefits.
Why More Research is Important
The American Medical Association and American College of Physicians have been vocal about the need for more research. A January 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine “emphasized several challenges and barriers in conducting such research” and mentioned the difficulty “to gain access to the quantity, quality and type of cannabis product necessary to address specific research questions.”
From 2008 to 2014, the National Institute of Health spent $1.1 billion of its $1.4 billion cannabis research fund on abuse and addiction. Only $297 million was spent on its effects on the brain and potential medical benefits.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only set of problems. There are still shortcomings and “false positives” in current research that need to be addressed. When cannabis research has been conducted, the marijuana used has been extremely low in THC — somewhere between 4 and 5%. This makes it difficult to know how marijuana with higher levels of THC (15-25%) or CBD fit into the equation.
Considering that the average amount of THC in recreational cannabis sold in Colorado is nearly 19%, it is safe to say that current cannabis research on products containing 4-5% THC is both irrelevant and outdated. Also, because scientific research has not been properly or sufficiently funded, most tests are conducted without a placebo, making it hard to prove the veracity of the research.
To put it simply, there are weak spots within the research. For example, when it comes to testing marijuana’s effect on patients with a psychological disorder like post-traumatic stress disorder, suffering and pain are subjective: It can’t be determined by numbers and effects are ambiguous and fluid.
In many states, cannabis is approved to alleviate pain associated with arthritis. But studies in publications like the Journal of the American College of Rheumatology found that the effectiveness and safety of marijuana to treat conditions such as arthritis are not yet supported by medical evidence. This is why the need for more legitimate cannabis research is so crucial to progressing the cannabis industry. With more medical research to back it, cannabis can become recognized as an effective medicine for many different ailments,
Much of what we know is based on anecdotes. Stories of patients swapping prescription drugs for marijuana and seeing results. The patients are educating the doctors. Just consider the strain Charlotte’s Web — shown to cure a child of epilepsy. The results and exposure prompted other parents to self-treat their children as well, but some didn’t generate nearly as successful results.
It’s because cannabinoids affect each person differently, but we don’t have enough research to understand the exact reasoning behind why this is. The medical community isn't able to conduct enough studies to draw legitimate safety or efficacy conclusions, making uniform treatment impossible. Ultimately, we need quantitative data to find cause-and-effect relationships to prove the legitimacy of cannabis as a medicine.
Although full-scale recreational and medical legislation is ideal, hopefully one day the federal government will at least remove regulatory barriers to enable scientists and researchers to do their job — and open the floodgates to a host of medical treatment options.