Science Up in Smoke: The Catch-22 of Marijuana Research

Despite the fact that an estimated one million patients use marijuana as medicine every year, the U.S. has restricted research on marijuana. In other words, we don't know conclusively what its dangers and benefits are. 

What's the Big Idea?

Marijuana has "high abuse potential" and no "currently accepted medical use." That is how marijuana is classified by federal bureaucrats, even though that view is very much out of sync with the opinions of many doctors and scientists. This designation is the legacy of the forty year old Controlled Substances Act, and this designation will not change any time soon, thanks to a ruling this week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. 

The appeals court ruled in favor of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which had chosen not to review scientific evidence in support of the reclassification of marijuana, which is currently a Schedule 1 agent, the most restrictive category for a controlled substance. 

This discrepancy between public policy and the scientific community is a well-documented public health predicament as an estimated one million patients use marijuana as a treatment every year. This discrepancy has also muddled public policy because 18 states have made medical marijuana legal. So what are law enforcement officials to do? How can the medical community be expected to make progress?

When confusion reigns, you cannot expect good outcomes. So the question to answer is this: why does such confusion reign? As Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance tells Big Think, marijuana occupies a special status in American culture and our legal system. This status is based on the belief that this substance is far more dangerous than any scientific evidence has borne out. 

Groups such as the American Medical Association, on the other hand, have called for the reclassification of marijuana as a Schedule II controlled substance. According to Dr. J. Michael Bostwick, Professor of Psychiatry at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, this reclassification would "acknowledge not only [marijuana's] abuse risks but also its therapeutic benefits." Bostwick told Big Think in a past interview that this would allow pharmaceutical companies to petition the FDA for the right to put the drug "through a battery of tests in animals and humans that ensure the drug's benefits outweigh its risks."

But there's one major problem. Marijuana is unique among Schedule 1 substances in that the government will not allow it to be produced by private laboratories for research. In fact, a single facility, the Coy W. Waller Laboratory Complex in Mississippi, is under contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse to produce marijuana for research purposes. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, this monopoly allows the NIDA to deny access to researchers "seeking to conduct FDA-approved studies of marijuana's medical properties." 

Due to these convoluted circumstances, the appeals court was able to rule that the petitioners who sought to have marijuana reclassified had failed to provide "adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy." 

Say what?

"We’re stuck in a Catch-22," explains Tamar Todd, senior staff attorney for the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance. "The DEA is saying that marijuana needs FDA approval to be removed from Schedule I, but at the same time they are obstructing that very research," Todd said.

The opposite is the case in Israel, a country that has become a leader in marijuana research. Rather than rejecting its medicinal value, Israeli scientists see medical marijuana as a cost-effective anti-inflammatory and a safer alternative to morphine and other highly addictive prescription painkillers

Israel's medical research sector has made significant progress in studying marijuana with the backing of the government. Various strains of cannabis have been studied, including one that doesn't get patients high but can be used to relieve pain, help with digestion and treat neuropsychological conditions. 

"It couldn't happen in the United States," says Raphael Mechoulam, the Israeli pharmacologist who isolated and synthesized tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, fifty years ago. The strange policy contradiction in Israel, however, is that despite the country's cutting edge research, marijuana is still illegal and far fewer patients are authorized to use it than in the U.S. 

What's the Significance?

The recent U.S. appeals court ruling is a clear reminder that the marijuana debate will have to be decided at the federal level. In reaction to voters in Colorado and Washington, President Obama and some Congressional leaders have indicated they would be open to the federal government decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. 

Such an action would still not resolve the government's policy regarding marijuana research, not to mention a whole host of other issues. The federal government's policy on marijuana is like an octopus, and it will require clear and decisive leadership across the board to untangle it. So far, leadership has been lacking on this issue. "The public is leading and the politicians are lagging behind," says Ethan Nadelmann. That's not the case in other countries. 

"You almost have the opposite happening in Latin America," Nadelmann says. "Beginning a few years ago you had former presidents – President Fernando Henrique Cardoso from Brazil, Cesar Gaviria from Colombia, Ernesto Zedillo from Mexico, standing up with other former leaders, cabinet ministers and saying 'enough is enough, we need to open the drug policy debate.'"  

In addition to former presidents, Nadelmann points out, leaders like Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia and Otto Perez Molina in Guatemala are "stepping out ahead of public opinion and exercising real leadership."

What is interesting about South America is that in each of the countries that are instituting drug policy reform, public support is even less than it is in the United States. The difference, according to Nadelmann, is that these South American presidents have embraced their roles as "leader and public educator in saying we have an obligation to future generations to raise this issue now." This contrast between this kind of political leadership "and the absence of that in my own country," Nadelmann says, "is somewhat galling."

In the video below, Nadelmann sheds light on the recent victories for marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado, and how the discrepancy between state law and federal law might play out. 

Watch here:

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

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