American medical science has done some pretty incredible things over the years. Our understanding of the human body has arguably advanced more in the past hundred years than in all of previous human history. So why is it so hard for the medical community to pin down the effects of cannabis on the body when they can do so with every other plant under the sun?
The root cause is, of course, scheduling. Marijuana’s schedule 1 status has had a chilling effect on cannabis research for decades, but unless you’re in the medical research community, you may not realize just how deep the problem goes. First off, there’s the problem of supply and demand. Since 1968, all cannabis used for medical research was grown at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. The farm is run by the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA), and their results are far from matching the efforts of the commercial market.
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies recently started a study on the effects of cannabis on veterans with PTSD, and after a lengthy approval process received cannabis from the NIDA farm. “It didn’t resemble cannabis, it didn’t smell like cannabis,” said physician Sue Sisley with the study.
The bud they sent was full of stems and leaves, and it did not pass muster. “That is, flat out, not a usable form of cannabis,” said professional cannabis critic Jake Browne. “In two decades of smoking weed, I’ve never seen anything that looks like that. Inhaling that would be like eating an apple, including the seeds inside it and the branch it grew on.” Totally unacceptable!
Because of the filler material, the clinical samples topped out at 8 percent THC, compared to the 13 percent claimed by the farm. They also found mold and other pathogens at much higher levels than is allowed in most state dispensaries, which puts study participants at risk. “Our biggest concern is patient safety,” said Mike Van Dyke, chief of toxicology with the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, which is funding the study. “The lack of federal regulatory structure makes it a huge challenge. We don’t have all the information we’d like to have.”
However, the supply-side is only part of the equation. Schedule 1 classification indicates two things: that the government believes cannabis has no medicinal benefits, and that the government believes cannabis to be addictive. All the rules around approving clinical research proposals concerning Schedule 1 drugs are based on those two propositions, which limits the possibilities for research.
The gold standard for medical research is the double-blind study, a randomized controlled trial where nobody involved knows which patient is getting a fake treatment, and which is getting the real deal. However, Schedule 1 status prevents double-blind studies from being approved; after all, you wouldn’t want someone getting regular doses of heroin for days or even weeks in the name of medical research.
So cannabis researchers have had to resort to less exacting methods of research, leading to many claims that suggest connections between cannabis use and different health effects, and no certainties. Without re-scheduling, it is impossible to definitively prove that cannabis can have positive health effects, and without definitive proof, it is nearly impossible to get cannabis rescheduled.
While there is hope on the horizon, it is a long way off. The most likely answer is a legislative reclassification, but it will likely be years before Congress is ready to act on that as well. Last summer, while it did not approve a rescheduling, the DEA invited other growers to apply for licenses to grow cannabis for clinical research. At the time, the agency warned applicants that the licenses would be limited, and the qualifying process strict. For now, the NIDA farm is still the main supplier.