The Drug Enforcement Agency announced a significant change in marijuana policy Thursday: It will expand the amount of marijuana grown for federal medical research.
While the DEA confirmed that cannabis will remain a Schedule I drug — the most criminalized category of controlled substance in the country — the agency will move to lift the cumbersome, dated barriers to research that have allowed for little scientific study of the actual drug.
“It’s outrageous that federal policy has blocked science for so long.”
For the past 50 years, the sole source of marijuana for federal research has been cultivated in a grow room on the University of Mississippi campus. Having just one producer impedes the approval process. The most recent study approved, a Colorado project testing how cannabis could help treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, took seven years of waiting before it got the federal stamp of approval.
Some scientists say the federal source could also be a outdated strain of weed, nothing like the ever-updating strains found on the shelves of medical and recreational marijuana suppliers.
“I welcome the decision to lessen barriers to medical marijuana research,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR),Congress’ leader in progressive marijuana policy, in a Wednesday statement. “It’s outrageous that federal policy has blocked science for so long.”
Blumenauer also called on the Obama administration to do more, criticizing the DEA’s decision to keep cannabis classified as Schedule I.
“It’s not enough to remove some barriers to medical research,” he said. “Marijuana shouldn’t be listed as Schedule I; it shouldn’t be listed at all. It is imperative…that the DEA work to end the failed prohibition of marijuana.”
The Thursday announcement leaned heavily on the precautions the DEA will take to make sure the new marijuana sources don’t overlap with illicit sale. Those applying to produce marijuana for scientific study must sign a series of contracts to promise they won’t distribute cannabis to any organization outside of the government. aren’t entirely guilt-free. And they’ll have to prove that their intentions are pure.
DEA head Chuck Rosenberg wrote that any applicants “will be asked to provide a written explanation of how they believe they would be able to augment the nation’s supply of research-grade marijuana.”
By now, it’s hard to argue against the benefits of marijuana as a medical aid. International studies with easier access to the drug have helped expedite this belief. Canada research has found evidence that cannabis curbs Multiple Sclerosis side effects and chronic pain. In June, New Zealand researchers discovered that the worst long-term health problem associated with smoking cannabis is gum disease (which is one of lesser dangers of smoking cigarettes).
And the few American studies approved by the feds in the past found that marijuana can reduce nausea and pain in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and boost appetite for people living with HIV. In July, a study even found that states with legalized medical marijuana have seen a sharp drop in opioid-based painkiller prescriptions, suggesting pot could potentially be the answer to the nation’s worst public health crisis.
But the DEA remains unconvinced. In Thursday’s report, Rosenberg said he decided to keep marijuana a Schedule I drug because “there are no adequate safety studies; there are no adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy; the drug is not accepted by qualified experts; and the scientific evidence is not widely available.”
With the DEA’s new access to research, scientists could finally publish data needed to sway public and legal opinion.