With Cannabis, Calls For More Research Are Not Enough

Marijuana legalization has been a big topic in news and politics over the last couple of years. Medical cannabis is legal in twenty-three states and enjoys an over 80% approval rate in swing states. Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized full, regulated adult use of marijuana with several more scheduled for ballot initiatives fully legalizing in the next couple of years, and in 2014 for the first time a majority of Americans approved of full legalization of marijuana. Many politicians have come out in favor of legal, regulated cannabis, but others have expressed reservations calling for more research before any decision is made. It’s understandable that after the decades of legal prohibition some might need to approach change more slowly, and more science is certainly an admirable goal. With cannabis, however, simply calling for more research is not enough because current laws restrict experimentation. In order to truly know what potential cannabis holds our laws must change.

Standing still is not an option. Any voice advocating for more research must also back up that rhetoric with calls for action.

Senators Rand Paul, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker backed it up when they introduced the CARERS Act which would not only ease banking regulations, allow VA doctors to discuss cannabis with their patients, open interstate commerce, and reduce cannabis to schedule 2, but it would also enable more research of the plant. CARERS, however, remains in committee in both the House and the Senate.

President Obama backed it up when he recently removed the requirement for the Public Health Service review for cannabis studies. In place since the 90s, the rule made marijuana the only substance in any schedule of the Controlled Substances Act requiring PHS review for study. Removing this requirement is a concrete step toward increased marijuana research.

The next biggest hurdle facing American cannabis science is the monopoly the National Institute on Drug Abuse holds over actual marijuana plants for research. Federally approved studies can only use cannabis harvested at the NIDA farm at the University of Mississippi, and the farm is limited in how much it can grow per year. Waiting on NIDA to grow the particular strains researchers are interested in can cause huge and unnecessary delays. States like Washington and Colorado have stores containing a wide variety of lab-tested marijuana and yet research labs in those states can’t use any of it. Lifting the NIDA monopoly would open up research options, especially if scientific institutions were allowed to grow their own and truly experiment with the plant.

Simple calls for more research are hollow without calling for changes to the law that allow that research to move forward. Those advocating for science to lead legalization efforts carry a responsibility to remove the decades-old obstacles standing in science’s way.