Cannabis Research: What’s the Hold-Up?

The lack of research available on cannabis is creating a holdup towards federal legalization

If you read enough about cannabis and are involved in the cannabis movement, you’ll see a very common narrative develop alongside the promotion of cannabis.  While the marijuana industry knows of the benefits of cannabis on health and lifestyle, it’s the lack of research available on cannabis that is creating a holdup towards federal legalization.

“More Research is Needed”

Other industries have been able to advance because their product has been researched. Research is a formal process of investigation that requires funding, ethics approvals in some cases, and careful dissemination of evidence. Cannabis has not been afforded the same advantages of other industries with research, and it’s a recurring problem for cannabis advocates. Research is what makes people able to be able to back up their decisions, whether it be monetary, ethical or political since we are now living in a knowledge economy where backing up what you claim with evidence is your currency. A Harvard study that was published earlier this year examined 10,000 studies and pieces of literature about the benefits and risks of marijuana. The study’s findings included, “the lack of any aggregated knowledge of cannabis-related health effects has led to uncertainty about what, if any, are the harms or benefits of its use.” While 10,000 abstracts helped the scientists looking at this review break down the conclusions of marijuana on health into 100 separate conclusions, the study overall concluded that there’s not enough scientific research on cannabis to make such sweeping statements about its benefits (and risks) amidst legalization efforts. “As laws and policies continue to change, research must also,” the study concluded.

Researching Cannabis is Illegal

Since cannabis is a Schedule 1 drug, it is technically illegal for it to be researched. Right now, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is the gatekeeper of the proposals that will allow cannabis research to legally move forward. When the DEA made a request for proposals for growers so that marijuana could be studied and researched at the federal level, 25 applications swarmed in. This was last year and nothing has been done about it. The Department of Justice essentially has to give the green light to the DEA to allow people to grow cannabis for research, and for research to continue. So far, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has not made any moves to allow federal research to begin on cannabis.

US Patent 6630507 & The Irony of It All

One of the ironies of cannabis is US Patent 6630507, which is the patent that the U.S. issued to itself 14 years ago that claimed the therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids. This is what the cannabis industry has been fighting to prove, and the U.S. government is the owner of the information that will allow this information to be federally applied. The Department of Health and Human Services was the branch of the government that was granted the patent, yet the DEA is fighting to keep cannabis (and CBD) as a Schedule 1 drug.  This ironic fact is a mind-bender, where it is the federal government that is both admitting the power of CBD (in this context as a powerful antioxidant) while trying to squash it down with illegality.

Big Pharma to be Gouged

Where there’s power, there’s always money, and there’s no doubt that cannabis research is just not moving forward because someone can lose money because of it. A recent study out of the University of Georgia looked at the issue of how much the medical system would stand to lose if medical marijuana became the way people chose to treat their illnesses and health issues.  The study looked at the year 2013 when 17 states implemented medical marijuana laws that made accessing it for medical purposes legal. The study estimated that if all states had made medical marijuana legal at that time, the overall savings to Medicare would have been $468 million. Earlier this year, New Frontier Data looked at what would happen if all sufferers of nine different medical conditions turned to medical marijuana as a treatment instead of their pharmaceutical prescriptions. The estimated impact to Big Pharma was $4.4 to $4.9 billion per year if people chose medical marijuana. The conditions were designated by the National Academies of Science as being most effectively treated by medical cannabis and included chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sleep disorders, anxiety, nerve pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting (CINV), Tourette Syndrome, glaucoma, and seizures/epilepsy. The estimated cost savings from a switch to medical marijuana for these conditions could represent an $18.5 billion dollar drop in pharmaceutical expenditures between 2016 and 2019.  The writing is on the wall: a lot of (influential) people could have a lot to lose if the federal government let out the secret that medical marijuana holds a lot of promise. A lot of people are plainly scared of what could happen if medical marijuana was consistently and regularly scientifically proven to be beneficial.

The Threat of Medical Cannabis

There is a lot at stake for the U.S. government to look at cannabis legalization at the federal level. In order to do this, more research will be needed for cannabis, which will require Jeff Sessions to make a move that we’re not sure he’ll ever make to give a green light to researching cannabis at a federal level. Even if/when there is a surge of cannabis research, it will require a lot of funding, political support, and at that, time to be able to observe the long-term or longitudinal effects of cannabis on health. Until then, private organizations across the nation are staying on top of what is emerging worldwide in terms of research to ensure that what we do know about cannabis is being communicated. It’ll take a bottom-up approach for the cannabis movement to ensure that change in research happens, and all involved in the fight have a role to play towards advocating for the research to catch up to what we already know about the miracle plant.


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