The DEA Just Made It Easier to Do Research on Weed
According to the US government, marijuana is one of the most dangerous drugs in existence—a Schedule 1 narcotic, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Like heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, cannabis has no accepted medical use, is highly addictive, and harmful.
Oh, you don’t agree? Disprove it.
Only, you probably can’t, because turning those the Schedule 1 definitions into testable hypotheses would first mean running a gauntlet of regulatory hoops. The scientific canon has almost no research on cannabis. And in the US, almost all of what little research does get done uses the same crop of marijuana plant, grown on a single plot at the University of Mississippi.
But today, the DEA’s longstanding stance towards cannabis softened just a little. The agency announced that it would allow researchers to buy cannabis from growers besides the University of Mississippi. It will still be prohibitively difficult to conduct research, but at least those researchers who make it through the regulatory gauntlet with their funding intact will be able to examine some of the most medically promising traits.
“The DEA’s had a pretty hard stance on cannabis for 40-odd years,” says Sam Mendez, executive director of the Cannabis Law and Policy Project at the University of Washington School of Law. (Disclosure: I was once housemates with Mendez’s sister.) “They say it has no accepted medical use, and that even in a medical setting it is not possible to develop appropriate safety standards.” That policy dates back to the original Controlled Substances Act. Critics pointed out at the time that marijuana was not nearly as dangerous or addictive as other narcotics—and that it might have medical uses. But politics never aligned in quite the right way to get the drug reclassified.
Today, some things are realigning. The DEA’s decision to allow more federally licensed growers came in response to petitions from the governors of Washington and Rhode Island to reschedule marijuana entirely. “It doesn’t surprise me that the DEA didn’t change,” Mendez says. “What they did change was opening up path for more research, so that leaves me optimistic.”
What he means is, more research could provide the evidence for an eventual rescheduling. “The DEA has often cited the lack of information when it talks about the terms of cannabis scheduling,” says Ryan Lynch, a plant biologist at Medicinal Genomics in Colorado. Now that information can blossom, thanks to access to hundreds—maybe thousands—of cannabis strains and their varying genomes, as opposed to the single, low-potency Mississippi crop. “We know that not all plants are created equal, and that particularly in cannabis there’s a hyper diversity, which can be pharmacologically significant,” Lynch says.
On the other hand, the DEA’s ruling doesn’t make it any easier for researchers to get access to all these newly-available plants. “When scientists want to start an experiment, they still have to go through the DEA’s extensive regulatory process, then university ethics, licensing to get access to the materials, and by the time you get through all that your research grant has probably expired,” says Jonathan Page, a biologist and founder of Anandia Labs, a cannabis research company. Even though cannabis is Schedule 2 in Canada, getting permission to study the drug isn’t easy there. “The meat and potatoes of science is funding,” Page says. “Can researchers attract funding for cannabis-based clinical trials when they have to compete with everyone else?”
Still, the slightly skunky whiff of change is in the air. Washington state will soon issue a state-wide license for marijuana research. Researchers could share data and findings with federally-funded (and therefore restricted from using marijuana) colleagues. Last year, the American Medical Association declared marijuana a medicine after looking at 79 peer-reviewed studies. Chemicals in cannabis show promise in treating various mental illnesses, epilepsies, and possibly even preventing certain types of tumor growth.
Is it a miracle drug? Almost certainly not. “I think there are some claims out there towards medical efficacy of cannabis that are questionable, but I don’t think the DEA’s stance on this is an accurate view of the existing science,” Mendez says. Is it dangerous? Addictive? “We have a huge patient cohort, because a statistically relevant percentage of the population has been using this stuff for decades—millennia, even,” Lynch says. Now some scientists have a better shot at finding out the answers to those questions, and more besides.