Marijuana’s New Legal Status Must Spark More Research

by protonketosupplement

In May the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) proposed officially reclassifying marijuana as a less dangerous drug. The move would effectively make weed legal with a prescription, thereby ending a key provision of the war on drugs instituted by then president Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. That “war” has traumatized, stigmatized and incarcerated millions of people, particularly Black and Hispanic minorities. It also has greatly hindered science.

It should end with the complete removal of research barriers nationwide, and the DEA action is a beneficial step in that direction.

Specifically, this step by the Biden administration would reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I to Schedule III drug within the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), moving it away from heroin, LSD and peyote, and into the prescription drugs group. If successful, the initiative would further decriminalize marijuana use while also, to some extent, reconciling federal and state laws. Making marijuana legal nationwide at the prescription drug level may make it easier for researchers to study its impacts and therapeutic uses. Nevertheless, some significant hurdles to marijuana research will remain after the rescheduling.

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Ironically, most Americans already enjoy a degree of leniency with marijuana that goes beyond Schedule III. Currently, 38 states support its medical use, and 24 states plus Washington, D.C., are allowing recreational marijuana consumption.

While this misalignment might seem inconsequential, it has a dark side. With the poorly controlled expansion of marijuana across the country, the drug will inadvertently end up in the hands of vulnerable individuals. Atop that list are the unborn, children and teens, for whom marijuana can interfere with brain development, as well as individuals with mental health disorders, such as anxiety, clinical depression and schizophrenia; the symptoms of such conditions can worsen with use of the drug.

Although additional research is needed to confirm such vulnerabilities, the risks are real. And while the rescheduling of marijuana is a step in the right direction, it will likely fall short of giving scientists unrestricted access for research. To that end, marijuana should be removed from the schedule of drugs or placed in a different framework altogether. That would make marijuana fully research-accessible—a status commensurate with recreational marijuana in many states. Lawmakers need to support not just cannabis enthusiasm but, more importantly, the health and well-being of their constituents.

Success depends largely on how effectively the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) navigates the reschedule and ensures there’s enough high-grade marijuana to meet increasing research demands. The agency must establish reliable product consistency standards, particularly for the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) ingredient in marijuana as well as toxic pollutants, ensuring consumer safety and public health. Unintentional overdosing has been linked to anxiety and panic attacks and, later, more severe mental, digestive, heart and respiratory health issues. Scientists need reliable standards to enable reproducible studies, which can then also determine doses for medical uses.

Cannabis plants feature a complex chemistry with more than 540 identified compounds. More than 100 are cannabinoids structurally related to THC as well as its nonpsychoactive relative cannabidiol (CBD), which has shown effectiveness in treating various health conditions but predominantly with brain seizure disorders such as epilepsy. Moreover, cannabis holds at least 150 so-called aromatic fragrance terpenes, which have been linked with health benefits ranging from anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial/antifungal to anticancer and neuroprotective effects. Most are present in marijuana in small amounts, and studies of them are complicated by their fluctuating content. Some also exhibit a so-called entourage effect, functioning synergistically with THC and CBD, which makes standardized study conditions even more difficult. For those reasons, the only FDA-approved psychoactive cannabinoids are the pure, synthetic THC mimetics (molecules that imitate and work like THC) called dronabinol and nabilone, with other molecules in the pipeline.

If the rescheduling plan succeeds, we can expect a substantial revitalization of entrepreneurial and research investments into marijuana. Researchers will benefit from a simplified licensing process, less stringent security requirements for storing marijuana, and reduced administrative paperwork. Private investors, universities and research centers along with public research funders, are more likely to invest in marijuana research following further destigmatization. Eventually researchers could benefit from the elimination of tightly controlled quotas on research-grade drug production, which only permits DEA-registered institutions to cultivate standardized marijuana for research purposes.

Matching high-quality research-grade marijuana production with growing needs will be critical. This scholarly expansion will likely involve a creative crossover of state backing and private sector cooperation from companies ready to meet research-grade compliancy standards.

State medical boards across the country have inconsistently approved or rejected the medicinal use of marijuana for various diseases. A federal mandate for unrestricted marijuana research expansion would resolve these inconsistencies. Beyond popular state-sanctioned uses of marijuana for ailments such as cancer, pain disorders, Alzheimer’s disease and wasting syndrome, there is a substantial divergence that needs an evidence-informed update.

While the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) supports the rescheduling of marijuana based on mixed evidence, the breadth of its therapeutic value remains underresearched. Large multicenter clinical studies, the gold standard for medical research examining marijuana for therapeutic purposes, are lacking as a result of high costs, regulatory hurdles, limited supply, complex approval processes, funding challenges and stigma over the past five decades. Another factor slowing down the quest for therapeutic purposes: a significant proportion of clinical trials remains focused on physical and mental impairment linked to marijuana instead of ways it could cure diseases.

Unfortunately, the debate over marijuana has become politicized, and less marijuana-friendly state legislators can impose stricter controls than the federal government, potentially mitigating any rescheduling benefit. Significant barriers to marijuana research will remain, and its ultimate impact will be determined by how quickly they are resolved. Full research access would be ideal and should be considered as the next step.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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