Even though state legalization of cannabis is spreading like a weed (excuse the pun), marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug at the federal level and therefore, by statutory definition, a highly dangerous substance with no therapeutic value.
While there are mounting observational and animal studies to suggest that cannabis does indeed have therapeutic effects, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials are lacking. Any positive findings from such studies, which are considered the gold standard of medical research, could be used to definitively challenge the Schedule 1 designation of cannabis. In almost a catch-22, however, it’s extraordinarily difficult to study cannabis in the United States due to its Schedule 1 status.
For example, in order to administer cannabis to study participants, researchers must obtain a series of certifications, clearances and permissions from the DEA and FDA — a process so onerous that only one researcher to date, Dr. Sue Sisley, has embarked on an FDA-approved clinical cannabis trial. The obstacle course, however, doesn’t end with FDA approval. The wonkiest and must obstructive law of all forces researchers to source their cannabis from the University of Mississippi. If this requirement strikes you as unduly strange and arbitrary, you’re not alone.
Unfortunately, as Sisley discovered when her hard-earned shipment of government greens finally arrived, Ole Miss grows some seriously sh*tty weed. The stash of was full of stems and seeds, and Sisley’s own testing revealed that the cannabis was riddled with mold and extraordinarily lacking in THC.
The inability of researchers to access decent cannabis is problematic for several reasons. First, low-quality, mold-ridden cannabis is unlikely to yield the beneficial health outcomes that cannabis is otherwise suspected to have. For example, despite her disappointment with the Ole Miss crop, Dr. Sisley pushed forward and completed a 5 year-long study examining the impact of cannabis on PTSD — research that was inspired by the multitude of anecdotal evidence, particularly from veterans, claiming the ability of cannabis to mitigate the notoriously intractable disease. Although the results of the study have not yet been published, at a Los Angeles conference last month, Sisley lamented that the results were “essentially what you’d expect from moldy cannabis.”
Another problem with restricting research to Ole Miss’s ditch weed is that researchers are unable to assess the health effects, both good and bad, of the cannabis that most people actually consume. For example, the THC content of the cannabis available in shops is much higher than that of Ole Miss’s crop. As the FDA and NIH acknowledged in a letter this week, it’s essential to study cannabis that’s representative of what the public actually consumes so that, as legalization spreads, policies can be crafted to promote public health (e.g., limit THC content if the risks of super-high THC cannabis are found to outweigh the benefits). Such research would similarly help doctors and other health professionals advise patients on safe dosing of cannabinoids in a way that further promotes public health.
Likely in recognition of the issues caused by Ole Miss’s monopoly on research cannabis, Obama instituted a policy shortly before leaving office enabling the DEA to review and approve applications from other cultivators wishing to grow cannabis for research purposes. Unfortunately, however, almost 6 years later, the applications have piled up, but the DEA is yet to review a single one.
Thankfully, however, Sisley took matters into her own hands and filed a suit in federal court in June demanding that the DEA issue an explanation within 30 days as to why it’s failed to review any cultivation applications. Exactly a month after the writ was filed, the DEA responded that it will start reviewing applications
This victory, however, is somewhat tempered by the DEA’s stated need to first implement regulations. It remains to be seen whether the agency will earnestly pursue such regulations or use them as stall tactic as Sisley accused in an additional motion filed this Wednesday. Either way there is cause for hope as momentum builds towards freeing cannabis research from the shackles of a purposively oppressive regime.