Obama Administration Takes A Big Step Forward On Marijuana Research

CREDIT: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

In what marijuana reform advocates are hailing as a victory and large crack in the armor of government bureaucracy, the Obama administration announced this week that it will ease some restrictions on cannabis research by removing the additional review of the Public Health Service (PHS) for projects not funded by the federal government.

Since its 1999 inception, the PHS review process has imposed barriers to marijuana research — including requirements that plants come from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and that studies fit the criteria of what the federal government finds suitable. The implementation of this criterion arose out of a concern that guidelines around the study of marijuana, designated as a Schedule I drug, were too lax.

But support for the PHS review has waned in recent years — even among opponents of legalization — due in part to researchers’ frustration with a labyrinth of a regulatory system and growing knowledge about marijuana’s potential health benefits that has spurred calls for further analysis.

However, advocates say there’s work left to be done. Even with the Obama administration’s recent move, scientists studying marijuana still have to secure approval from NIDA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Drug Enforcement Agency in order to obtain and transport large quantities of the plant from the government’s lone research depository in Mississippi — a rule that Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) hopes will experience a similar fate as the PHS review.

“The two biggest hurdles to marijuana research have been the PHS review and NIDA’s monopoly on the supply of marijuana available for research purposes,” Riffle, director of federal policies for MPP, told the International Business Times. “Now that one of those unnecessary barriers has been removed, we hope the second will undergo serious scrutiny. In fact, the Senate will be holding a hearing Wednesday regarding marijuana-related research, and we expect there to be some tough questions about NIDA’s monopoly.”

Regardless of the upcoming Senate meeting’s outcome, there’s no denying that this change in marijuana policy and calls for additional research has been years in the making. Since the 1990s, state legislatures have slowly but surely become more liberal in their marijuana policy. Today, medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia and more than 70 percent of Americans favor the plant’s use as a healing agent. In recent months, lawmakers have entertained the possibility of expanding war veterans’ access to medical marijuana. Rigorous scientific research has not kept pace with liberalized medical marijuana laws.

One reason for the legislative shift, perhaps, centers on growing awareness about marijuana prohibition’s racist beginnings. Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Agency, rallied support for prohibition in the 1930s by linking marijuana use to aggressive, hypersexualized behavior in African Americans, Mexicans, and other ethnic groups — an assertion that has since been disputed. Raised consciousness about the consequences of draconian drug laws — especially for people of color — has also led to pushback against anti-marijuana rhetoric not based in science.

Residents in 19 states and the District of the Columbia have voted to decriminalize possession of the plant. However, pressure from federal law enforcement officials remains a constant threat — a lesson that some California medical marijuana dispensaries learned when U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag tried to shut down their operation, a case that’s still winding its way through the courts.

That’s why the removal of NIDA’s stranglehold on the supply of marijuana approved for research could prove to be a great benefit to researchers clamoring to jumpstart timely studies about marijuana’s health effects and possible medical use.

The absence of such exclusivity over the plant would have made life easier for former University of Arizona psychiatry professor Dr. Sue Sisley. Last year, she received approval for her study on medical marijuana’s potential to treat post-traumatic stress disorder after a five-year process. University officials fired her shortly after, a move that terminated her research.

Government officials, however, have faced some external pressure to alleviate its regulations, particularly in light of growing scholarship outside of the country that has added another piece of the puzzle in the ongoing quandary about marijuana. In April, NIDA acknowledged the findings of a St. George’s University of London study that found a reduction in tumors in mice exposed to the combination of cannabinoids, saying that future studies may lead to new medications. Domestically, science has challenged what some consider archaic reasoning for maintaining marijuana’s Schedule I status. An Emory University study conducted at the beginning of the year found that marijuana didn’t significantly affect lung function, supporting the findings of research conducted years earlier.

If a marijuana research renaissance happens in the United States, Colorado — where the sale and taxation of marijuana is legal — could be ground zero. State lawmakers approved an $8 million grant last year that will go toward marijuana research. Though a panel of medical professionals later applauded the move, they warned that the dollar amount wouldn’t suffice in answering questions about marijuana use among young adults, the degree to which THC impairs drivers and skiers, and the effects of the plant on pregnant women.

Even with a dearth of knowledge about marijuana, lawmakers in Colorado continue to argue in favor of restrictive laws — including a bill that would require pot shops to post warnings about marijuana use by pregnant women. That legislation would also prohibit doctors from recommending medical marijuana to expectant mothers.

Marijuana legalization advocates, like Michael Elliott of the Marijuana Industry Group, a lobbying organization, said that such scenarios could be prevented with additional research that will answer lawmakers, residents, and researchers most pressing questions about marijuana’s medical value and health drawbacks.

“The federal government has essentially banned the ability of researchers to study the potential medicinal value of marijuana,” Elliott, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group told the Huffington Post. “Colorado has taken its own steps to do what the federal government should be doing — funding research into the potential medical value of marijuana. We know that marijuana has medical value. Now we will be able to show it with research.”