Why It’s So Hard For Scientists To Study Medical Marijuana

By Shaunacy Ferro

Eighteen states (plus the District of Columbia) allow cannabis use for certain medical conditions. Despite that, scientists have a harder time doing research on the potential medical benefits of marijuana than they do on “harder” drugs like ecstasy or magic mushrooms. The public may think of pot use as no big deal, but federal laws make it difficult for researchers to obtain legal supplies. Clinical researchers can get permission from the DEA to grow or create restricted compounds like LSD, MDMA or psilocybin in the lab; not so with cannabis.
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 placed marijuana in the most restrictive use category, Schedule I, deeming it a drug with no medicinal value and high potential for abuse. To do clinical research with marijuana, you need a DEA license, and you need to get your study approved by the FDA. When it comes to actually obtaining research-grade marijuana, though, you have to go through the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a process that has proved problematic for some researchers determined to study the potential medical benefits of pot.
“Marijuana is a linchpin in the War on Drugs,” explains Brad Burge, the director of communications for the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Research (MAPS), an organization currently embroiled in a lawsuit with the DEA over the right to establish a medical marijuana farm. “There’s a lot of investment in marijuana remaining illegal.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that marijuana can reduce chronic pain, reduce muscle spasms inpatients with multiple sclerosis and perhaps even help treat symptoms of PTSD. The small amount of clinical research out there also supports the idea that marijuana could be an effective treatment for pain. A 2007 study found that smoking cannabis reduced chronic pain in HIV-positive patients by 34 percent. Results from a Canadian study in 2010 further supported the theory that it can reduce the intensity of neuropathic pain–pain caused by damage to the nervous system–and help patients sleep.
Both the American Medical Association and theAmerican College of Physicians have called for more research into the therapeutic uses of marijuana and for the U.S. government to reconsider its classification as a Schedule I substance.
The University of Mississippi grows and harvests cannabis for studies funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, yet because NIDA’s congressionally mandated mission is to research the harmful effects of controlled substances and stop drug abuse, the institute isn’t interested in helping establish marijuana as a medicine.
“If you’re going to run a trial to show this is going to have positive effects, they’re essentially not going to allow it,” Lyle Craker, a professor and horticulturist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says.
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