Countless activists, researchers and enthusiasts let out a collective whimper when the Drug Enforcement Administration upheld a 46-year-old policy of classifying marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic with no medicinal properties.
But then, federal officials did something utterly unexpected and loosened restrictions on the cultivation of marijuana for research purposes. While that might sound counterintuitive, it sends a signal that perhaps the government is looking for a reason to eventually reschedule cannabis as a less offensive drug than, say, heroin.
Until that day comes, marijuana researchers across California can finally enjoy better access to their most prized possession. Thanks to the DEA’s recent decision, the University of Mississippi will no longer be the sole legal distributor of cannabis for scientific purposes.
The implications of this are twofold. Licensing additional growers means scientists might not have to wait as long to get their product. But more important, adding new growers to the mix means researchers will finally have access to different strains of pot, which could impact what kind of research scientists will conduct moving forward.
“It may spur the development of different plants, which may, for example, have more CBD than THC or the other way around,” says Dr. Igor Grant, director of the University of California at San Diego’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research.
The difference between CBD, cannabidiol and THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, is key to how researchers and the government study, prescribe and ultimately classify marijuana. CBD does not get you high, whereas THC does. In theory, it would be easier to pass legislation making CBD treatment legal because no one can get stoned from it. THC, on the other hand, has the dubious honor of being both recreationally awesome and medically potent.
Currently, THC is licensed by the Food and Drug Administration as a drug called Marinol or Dronabinol and is used to treat nausea and vomiting in cancer patients, or to increase appetite and weight gain in people with AIDS. It also reportedly is helpful in the treatment of certain kinds of neuropathic pain, for example alleviating muscle spasms in multiple sclerosis patients.
While CBD lacks the psychoactive properties that get people high, it has been shown to have anti-epileptic and anti-inflammatory effects. Yet researchers don’t have the same kind of access to CBD that they do to THC. The University of Mississippi has just one strain available, and accessing this secret stash is no small feat. It could take anywhere from six to 18 months to procure the rare ingredient that would help scientists determine if there really are valid uses for marijuana other than getting high.
“The important thing [these new regulations] will do is improve the availability of cannabis and hopefully the type of cannabis available for research so we can answer more of these questions,” Grant says.
Of course, the problem with the DEA’s new and improved guidelines is that no one knows how long they will take to implement. It could be weeks or years before new growers are licensed to distribute to research facilities. In the meantime, it’s business as usual for the few federally approved centers around the country.
The cumbersome process of acquiring marijuana for studies requires first being approved by the FDA and then by the DEA. It's a step up from how things were originally done when the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research was founded in 2000. Back then, and until about a year or so ago, a third level of approval was required from the Department of Health and Human Services.
California has spent approximately $8.7 million in the 16 years since establishing Grant’s center. At the time, UCSD was the only researcher in the field and the university largely paved the way for more streamlined protocols to acquiring and studying marijuana. Grant’s center has been at the vanguard of cannabis research from the beginning, and scientists there remain confident pot’s medicinal future could be bright if only the federal government would continue to ease up on regulations.
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“I’m really hoping that with some of these gradual changes, both at the federal level and more rapid changes at the state level, research on medical cannabis will accelerate,” Grant says.
“What we really need is much larger-scale studies and, in particular, we need studies that are longer going — something that works for a few weeks or a month might not be safe for a year or two.”
Next month, Grant’s team will kick off two new studies. One, which is federally funded, will examine the different ways of administering pot to patients experiencing neuropathic pain. Some test subjects will ingest THC in a pill and others will inhale vaporized cannabis to see which is more effective.
The second, and state-sanctioned, study will look at the effects of marijuana on driving. Volunteers will receive various levels of pot potency to study impairment and how to better measure intoxication on the side of the road.