Advocates for medical cannabis often call it a “wonder drug.” Some of them declare with full confidence that it relieves or cures all kinds of ailments, from headaches to cancer. But cannabis researchers in academia, while generally optimistic about the plant’s potential, are much more guarded. If pot ever gains acceptance in mainstream medicine — for one ailment or a whole range of them — it will be thanks to the work of academic researchers. Their work is central to the acceptance of cannabis in medical therapy. The trouble there is that, thanks to federal illegality, research has been severely restricted.
Medical cannabis researchers’ hands are tied by the red tape of getting approval to research a federally illegal drug, by the near impossibility of getting funding, and by the substandard cannabis that they are forced to use in their work. Lifting those restrictions would give a huge boost to the medical cannabis industry, the same way academic research informs the pharmaceutical business.
On Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed a bill, the Medical Marijuana Research Act (MMRA), that would lift some of those restrictions. The full House is expected to pass it, but its future in the Republican-controlled Senate is, at best, in doubt.
If it passes into law, “it will be better than nothing, but not much better,” said Bob Solomon, co-chair of the University of California, Irvine’s Center for the Study of Cannabis, which focuses on the potential health benefits and drawbacks of cannabis use.
His weariness is understandable for a beleaguered, researcher who has faced year after year of stonewalling from government officials. As things stand, academic researchers have to contend with miles of red tape for just about everything they do.
Just getting federal and state approval for a study takes months, and sometimes more than a year. Perhaps worst of all, they are forced to work with the notoriously mediocre product grown under federal supervision at the University of Mississippi. Averaging about a third as much THC as dispensary pot, it’s said to often be rife with stems and seeds, and sometimes mold or other impurities.
Solomon has been asked whether these restrictions have meant that the past 30 years of research is essentially “meaningless.” His answer: “pretty much.”
Besides studying the potential health benefits of weed, such as its capacity to relieve the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, the CSC also examines its potential harms. Current research at the CSC involves the potentially dangers of weed on adolescent brains and on fetuses in the womb.
The MMRA bill, which has bipartisan support, was amended on Wednesday to allow research with weed grown at any state-licensed facility. This would likely make cannabis research more relevant and reliable, since the levels of THC, CBD, and other components of the cannabis plant would be more like what people actually use.
That mollified Solomon somewhat. But although the Drug Enforcement Administration pledged in 2016 to license more federal facilities to provide research weed, it still hasn’t issued a single license. Its intransigence has drawn lawsuits from researchers.
Lawmakers got rare praise from NORML on Wednesday for including a provision to take the DEA out of the equation. NORML deputy director Paul Armentano said the provision would “not only facilitate and expedite clinical cannabis research…[and] bring about a long overdue end to decades of DEA stonewalling and interference with respect to the advancement of our scientific understanding of the cannabis plant.”
The MMRA has two sponsors: one, Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, is a Democrat and legalization advocate; the other Andy Harris of Maryland, is a Republican who is a staunch opponent of full legalization . Some of his Republican allies are also prohibitionists, but others, such as Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, are cannabis advocates. Prohibitionist groups such as Kevin Sabet’s Smart Approaches to Marijuana also endorsed the bill.
It might seem a bit strange for the prohibition-minded to back cannabis research, but there are good reasons why they do. For one, they think the research will yield evidence that pot doesn’t have as many curative properties as advocates contend. For another, groups like SAM want cannabis to be tightly controlled and reserved for the instances where it is a proven therapy. And finally, not all cannabis research is devoted to discovering its medicinal qualities: much if it is devoted to studying its potential harms.
According to the journal Science, of the nearly $1.5 billion spent on cannabis research in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018, more than $1 billion went toward studying the potential harms of cannabis. Most of that came from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Whether studying the benefits or the harms, federal restrictions have left researchers far more ignorant than they would otherwise be. The studies that are hardest for them to conduct are those involving human subjects.
“All the protocols need approval before a study can even begin,” said Agnes Balla, research policy manager for the University of California Office of the President. “We need approval from the FDA and the DEA, as well as the state.” As a result, Solomon noted, researchers are often forced to use animals as their subjects. “There are a lot of stoned mice running around out there,” he said.
The Partisan Angle
Ideally, researchers and advocates say, Congress would simply legalize cannabis or at least remove its Schedule 1 status, which puts it in the same criminal category as heroin and LSD. The House is expected to vote this month on the MORE Act, which would legalize weed across the country. But like MMRA, most observers say it has little chance of passing the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has indicated he wouldn’t allow a floor vote.
The MMRA might have a better chance, since it has more bipartisan support. Solomon’s not optimistic, however. “The Senate is insane. It’s the same thing that’s been going on for decades,” he said of political obstruction of cannabis reform. “It’s all politics and racism and a false image of what cannabis is.
As the House committee debated the bill before passing it on a voice vote on Wednesday, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan) told her fellow lawmakers that she had begged her husband John, whose House seat she now occupies, to try medical marijuana to relieve the symptoms of the cancer that ultimately killed him in 2019. “I begged John Dingell to try marijuana the last year, and he wouldn’t, because we didn’t have the data,” she said. “So I beg you all please vote for passing this legislation and may we get it over the finish line this time.”
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