The White House took down one small hurdle, but research on marijuana is still very far from an open field.
by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director
Several mainstream media outlets are reporting that the US Department of Health and Human Services has removed a requirement mandating that all investigative protocols seeking cannabis for clinical study must undergo a Public Health Service review. The review process, which was enacted in 1999 and applied only to clinical studies involving cannabis, was long criticized by advocates as unnecessarily burdensome and time-consuming.
Commenting on the change, a Health and Human Services spokeswoman said, “The department expects the action announced today will help facilitate further research to advance our understanding about the health risks and any potential benefits of medications using marijuana or its components or derivatives.”
But as I point out in news wire coverage here, such claims are likely overstated.
Historically NIDA has been reluctant to give the go-ahead to large-scale marijuana studies exploring the plant’s potential benefits. Just in 2010, a spokesperson told the New York Times, “Our focus is primarily on the negative consequences of marijuana use. We generally do not fund research focused on the potential beneficial medical effects of marijuana.”
That is because unique hurdles to clinical cannabis research will continue to exist as long as the plant is a) classified as a schedule I controlled substance defined as possessing no medical use and b) the source material for clinical trials must be provided by the US government’s lone supplier, the University of Mississippi (which is overseen by the US National Institute on Drug Abuse).
Further, despite this announced change, the DEA and NIDA (along with the FDA) still must oversee all clinical marijuana research. One of these agencies (the DEA) is in place to enforce the federal criminal prohibition of marijuana. The other agency (NIDA) exists largely as an outgrowth of marijuana’s schedule I status. It remains highly unlikely that the very agencies in place to oversee and preserve cannabis prohibition would ever permit the type of rational review that would ultimately lead policymakers and the public to question the status quo.
Finally, it bears repeating that ample scientific research already exists to contradict cannabis’ federal, schedule I status as a substance without medical utility, lacking acceptable safety, and possessing a high potential of abuse. More clinical research is welcome, but unfortunately science has never driven marijuana policy. If it did, the United States would already have a very different policy in place.
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