Imagine — a plant’s history dating back thousands of years as medicine has yet to be thoroughly researched by modern-day officials because of decades-old laws. Scientists and researchers have aired their grievances towards the limited research surrounding cannabis. Federal drug and law agencies classify marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which the CDC defines as a substance with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Interestingly, the classification doesn’t reflect statewide laws across the country that have legalized medical marijuana, at the very least.
Unfortunately, federal agencies do not have access to statewide cannabis for research. Instead, they only have access to federally-grown marijuana to facilitate studies.
Thankfully, laws surrounding federal research on cannabis are changing under the Biden administration. The top federal drug official recently admitted that federal cannabis laws created an uphill battle for research — hurdles she faced in her tenure with the federal government. The National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora Volkow recently shared the hesitancy among scientists to research cannabis due to the “cumbersome” rules. During a forum Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation (CPEAR), Volkow doubled down on the hurdles researchers face because of governmental regulations to access cannabis because of the Schedule I classification. She said that she’s dodged researching cannabis in the past because federal laws “requires certain procedures that actually can be very lengthy.”
“In some instances, it detracts researchers who want to investigate it because it’s just much more cumbersome than doing studies with other substances,” Volkow added, explaining that she’s personally faced these issues when researching Schedule I substances. Volkow reiterated the “cumbersome” process, specifically regarding human subjects. According to Volkow, the lengthy process includes getting approval before research can move forward. Plus, the delays can create additional costs and, ultimately, get pretty expensive.
There’s also the issue of interpretations of international treaties. Volkow added that the specific rules had created limitations to research, like a single source to obtain cannabis authorized through NIDA — a barrier in itself. Between technology and the evolution of the cannabis plant, relying on one singular plant to research cannabis doesn’t paint a complete picture of its benefits. The restrictions of access to cannabis from dispensaries in states where cannabis is legal “defeats the purpose of understanding the components that are responsible for therapeutic benefits,” the top drug official said.
As Marijuana Moment points out, the DEA is looking into new measures for federal agencies to access more cannabis manufacturers outside of the NIDA.
Volkow has similarly vocalized her concerns around the criminalization of cannabis and other substances. She previously spoke to Marijuana Moment about the need to access dispensary cannabis products like flower, vape pens, and psychedelics for research purposes.
The stigma surrounding addiction is a roadblock to prevention and treatment, she explained, adding that it’s a societal problem due to criminalizing people with drug dependencies. “This has been shown repeatedly that it’s not only not beneficial, but it actually exacerbates the outcomes of individuals that are put in prison or in jail for the use of drugs,” Volkow explained during the forum. Additionally, she pointed out the racial disparities in drug-related arrests and how that’s also affected the inequities among marginalized communities in health care.
There’s a long way ahead before the federal government removes cannabis from Schedule classification. However, there have been some good signals towards federal agencies gaining more access to statewide dispensary cannabis. Earlier this year, Joe Biden passed a new infrastructure bill that directly spoke to cannabis research. The legislation encourages access to state-legal cannabis to study impaired driving. The transportation bill specifically allows researchers in states where cannabis is illegal to access state-legal cannabis to find data on driving high.
The legislation also includes a provision to encourage education about the effects of operating motor vehicles under the influence of cannabis in states where retail cannabis businesses are allowed. Additionally, the bill encourages updating n statewide highway safety laws in states where cannabis is legal to create programs educating citizens of the risk associated with “marijuana-impaired driving and to reduce injuries and deaths resulting from individuals driving motor vehicles while impaired by marijuana.” However, advocates have criticized this bill for targeting states where cannabis is legal when this issue isn’t limited to legitimate recreational markets.