Go Forth and Study Cannabis

Research image

History was made on December 2 when President Joe Biden signed H.R.5657, The Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act. The bill makes it easier for scientists to conduct research to determine marijuana’s potential health benefits and risks, and encourages the FDA to develop more cannabis-derived treatment for medical conditions.

Due to the plant’s stigma here and its Schedule I status under criminal law, it has been a challenge for scientists in the U.S. to study cannabis. According to international cannabis news site Soft Secrets, the top countries for cannabis research include The Czech Republic, Uruguay, Canada, Spain, The Netherlands and Israel. Australia, New Zealand and Germany are not far behind them.

“For decades, the federal government has stood in the way of science and progress – peddling a misguided and discriminatory approach to cannabis,” said a joint statement issued by the co-chairs of the U.S. Congressional Cannabis Caucus. “Research is essential to better understand the therapeutic benefits of cannabis that have the potential to help millions of Americans struggling with chronic pain, PTSD, multiple sclerosis, anxiety disorders and more,”

Currently, there is one FDA-approved cannabis-derived drug product, Epidiolex, for the treatment of epilepsy, says the Association of American Medical Colleges. Three synthetic cannabis-related products are currently available to treat nausea in chemotherapy patients.

Here are some of the ways H.R.5657 overcomes the hurdles scientists have faced in their research of cannabis.

  • The DEA is now mandated to respond to applications to study marijuana within 60 days. They can either approve the application, request more information, or list the reasons the application was denied. Scientists and cannabis providers need permission from the DEA to study cannabis because of its Schedule I classification. According to past applicants, many responses have taken more than a year.
  • If scientists change protocols in the course of their research, they do not have to notify, receive a review, or reapply to the DEA.
  • Accredited medical and osteopathic schools, practitioners, research institutions and manufacturers with a Schedule I registration can cultivate their own cannabis for research purposes.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is tasked with examining the health benefits and risks of marijuana as well as policies that are inhibiting research into cannabis that’s grown in legal states. After those barriers are identified, HHS must make recommendations on overcoming them.
  • State-licensed physicians who discuss the risks and benefits of marijuana and cannabis-derived products with patients will not be in violation of the Controlled Substances Act.
  • Each year, the DOJ, in conjunction with HHS, is required to review the supply of cannabis available for research purposes. If it determines that the supply is low, it must submit a report to Congress.

What H.R.5657doesn’t do is allow researchers to access cannabis from state-legal dispensaries for their studies. According toScience Magazine, scientists complain that the marijuana available to them from the DEA is not as potent as the pot commercially available to casual and medical users. For years, in fact, there was only one DEA-registered grower permitted to supply cannabis to U.S. scientist, but in the past year, six have been added, says Science. (Is that enough? And who are those suppliers? Those are topics to discuss in a separate article.)

Scientists would really like to see the federal government move the classification of cannabis to Schedule II. Schedule I suggests that marijuana is harmful and medically unproven. In October, the attorney general was ordered by the president to consider that move.

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