As more states move to legalize all or some marijuana use, reform has remained stalled not just by outright federal prohibition, but also by federal policies that have suppressed research on cannabis.
On Friday, the federal government took a potentially momentous step back from this position, granting researchers who have for years borne the brunt of this policy access to a legal supply of marijuana. The decision means a psychiatry professor at the University of Arizona who specializes in treating veterans may for the first time be able to perform a triple-blind study on marijuana and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Veterans and others suffering from PTSD have long vouched anecdotally that marijuana provides unique relief for their symptoms. And a study last May that examined the brain without actually administering marijuana suggested that cannabis may mitigate the flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, and other symptoms that plague PTSD sufferers.
But federal government denial of both the legal supply of marijuana to study the issue and a supply of federal funding have thwarted studies like this one, despite approval by the Food and Drug Administration and financial backing from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
“MAPS has been working for over 22 years to start marijuana drug development research, and this is the first time we’ve been granted permission to purchase marijuana from NIDA,” the group said in a statement.
In August, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta announced he had reversed his position on marijuana, saying, “we have been terribly and systematically misled,” and that “sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works” to treat medical conditions. He told the story of now-7-year-old Charlotte Figi, whose transformation after using a marijuana extract to treat her seizures inspired many other parents of children with seizures to flock to Colorado for treatment.
Marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration, meaning it is deemed to be a dangerous drug with no currently accepted medical value. This designation is more severe than that of cocaine and opium poppy. Sttudies like this one are needed not just to put scientific backing behind the anecdotes and better adjust prescriptions; they are also necessary to persuade the Drug Enforcement Administration to reschedule the drug. The agency has maintained in response to numerous petitions that there is not sufficient rigorous research to rebut Congress’ 1970 decision to place the drug in the Controlled Substances Act’s most restrictive category.
Last February, a a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology and one-time MacArthur Fellow analogized the suppression of marijuana research to creationist control over paleontology, citing this PTSD study. “The most blatant example of this behavior came last year, when NIDA blocked an FDA-approved clinical trial testing marijuana as a remedy for post traumatic stress disorder,” said John H. Schwarz. “… As a physicist, I can assure you that this not how physics works. … We are all expected to act like grownups and accept it gracefully as experiments prove our favorite theories are false. In physics, unlike marijuana policy, we consider the right message to send to be the message that’s true.”
He and others in the medical marijuana community have argued that the DEA and National Institute on Drug Abuse act as a “tag team” to censor science, with NIDA holding a monopoly over legal access to cannabis for research, and the DEA refusing to reconsider the drug’s designation in the Controlled Substances Act on the basis that sufficient research does not exist.
This study must still be granted DEA approval, but is expected to receive it.