Barriers to Cannabis Research

The federal classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance has and continues to severely inhibit the research of this plant

Over the last 10 years, the United States has had a reckoning with its perception of cannabis as dozens of states voted to legalize medical and/or recreational cannabis. Over 5 million Americans are registered medical marijuana patients, according to the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).

There are hundreds of studies on the medical benefits of cannabinoids, a set of chemical compounds found in cannabis, which show the plant has the potential to help treat a wide variety of ailments, ranging from mental health disorders like depression and PTSD to conditions like epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. 

And yet, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) still classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, which defines substances with a high potential for abuse and no current accepted medical use.

This scheduling has severely limited the research on marijuana since it was first instituted in the 70s. While we as a collective are learning more and more about cannabis everyday thanks to the curiosity of those unafraid to bend the rules, there are still many questions left unanswered about cannabis. How much can the compounds in cannabis really affect the human body? How do they interact with each other once they’re in our system, and how do they interact with the naturally-occurring compounds in our bodies? What is the healthiest, most efficient way to consume? 

There are a multitude of ways that the Schedule 1 status of cannabis inhibits our understanding of a plant that millions of Americans are using medicinally. Let’s get into it.

1. Universities are likely to ban cannabis research within their institutions for fear of losing federal funding.

Many Institutions of Higher Learning have little choice but to forgo cannabis research as it may put their federal funding, such tuition assistance and other research grants, at risk. These institutions also won’t allow any controlled substances on the premises unless the researcher has received a certification from the DEA.

“Getting that certification is a lot of work,” says Jeff Rawson, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University. “The process takes a long time and requires very specific plans. The quantities need to be tightly controlled and regulated. I have to spell out exactly how much compound I need for the experiments. Then I need to propose it, and convince someone this particular question is worth having the controlled substance. It could take me a year or two to start.”

2. Many National Institutes of Health centers and organizations will not support cannabis research.

The National Institutes of Health has many sub groups studying chronic exposure, such as the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). However, these institutions will not support any research connected to cannabis.

“They fund studies about the chronic effects of all kinds of exposure, but they won’t fund a study on the hazards of chronic exposure to cannabis,” Rawson said. “The ones who support chronic health impacts won’t support drug research, and while the National Institute of Drug Addiction (NIDA) will, they won’t support chronic health impacts.”

3. Supply is limited.

The Schedule 1 controlled substance status of cannabis requires the DEA to oversee and regulate the cultivation of cannabis for research. The DEA has only issued one single registration for research cultivation to the NIDA, which contracts with the University of Mississippi. 

All cannabis used for clinical investigations must be sourced through NIDA’s Drug Supply Program. However, many researchers have found the quality of product cultivated there to be subpar. 

Scientists have claimed the product they received from NIDA “didn’t resemble cannabis,” and many samples contained mold, according to a 2017 PBS story on the issue. Thankfully, the DEA is working to amend regulations and allow more scientists and companies to grow cannabis for research. 

While there has been much hindrance in our understanding of cannabis, there is just as much of a push to do away with these barriers. Just last month, President Joe Biden signed an infrastructure bill that would allow researchers to study the actual cannabis product consumers are purchasing in their respective state dispensaries. 

When the research does start flowing and questions start being investigated, there will be many Americans waiting for those answers. 

“This is a situation where a lot of people want information and not much good information is available. It’s the most important science to do,” said Rawson. “The second we produce good answers, they will already be overdue. But lots of people will pay attention.”

If you’d like to learn more about the research currently being conducted on cannabis, check out our Cannabis Science Fair happening Saturday, December 11 at Boston University’s BUild Lab IDG Capital Student Innovation Center.

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