August 21st, 2017

Marijuana Research: Yet Another Obstacle

Just as the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has slightly eased its opposition to cannabis research, its parent organization, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) appears to be erecting new barriers. Having previously opined that the benefits of medical marijuana “have been hyped, maybe too much,” Attorney General Sessions appears to be backing up his doubts with action, or more precisely, inaction.

Non-response, whether or not a conscious strategy, was how the DEA initially dealt with a lawsuit aimed at promoting cannabis research. Last Fall, the DEA broke its silence by reiterating its opposition to moving “marijuana” out of Schedule 1. In what appeared to be an encouraging softening of its previous total opposition, the agency agreed to make the substance more available for legitimate research by breaking the monopoly on access to research grade cannabis. Unlike any other potentially dangerous psychoactive substance, scientists wanting to do research on the effects of cannabis have only one source of supply. The lack of competition creates delays and also means that the approved source cannot create a product that matches the high THC concentration of what is available to street users. DEA Administrator, Chuck Rosenberg, said that the DEA would “support and promote legitimate research regarding marijuana and its constituent parts.”

Despite the DEA decision, no other sources have actually been approved. The problem does not appear to be with the DEA, but rather with unspecified levels above it within the DOJ. A recent Washington Post article reports that 25 applications have been approved by the DEA in the past year but are still in limbo because of inaction at higher DOJ levels. According to one DEA official, “the Justice Department has effectively shut down this program to increase research registrations.’’

That a substance as complex and potent as cannabis has sparked extreme opinions over the centuries about its benefits or dangers is no surprise. Taking yet another pause in clarifying this issue, however, is particularly ill-timed. Research in Europe is providing evidence that for the management of some chronic pain syndromes, cannabis may be a preferable medication to opioids, the use of which finally appears to be declining. Furthermore, the increasing recreational use in this country raises many unanswered questions about how to address acute problems such as impaired driving as well as chronic ones such as how to best treat cannabis addiction.

Skepticism about overly positive promotions of the medical benefits of cannabis makes good sense. Obstructing valid scientific studies to test these claims does not and we all suffer the consequences. I recommend that we do not suffer them in silence.

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