How the Federal Government’s Opposition to Medical Marijuana Research Keeps Patients in the Dark

Last week the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a report surveying over 10,000 scientific studies to determine conclusively how marijuana interacts with the body. The review was especially concerned with marijuana’s efficacy as a medicine as well as its positive and negative short- and long-term effects on users.

Some of the Academies’ published conclusions were incredible. For example, there is conclusive evidence that cannabis and/or cannabinoids are an effective treatment for chronic pain in adults. It’s also clear that using cannabis prior to driving increases the likelihood of being involved in a motor accident, and smoking cannabis during pregnancy leads to a lower birth weight among newborns. These and other conclusions from the report will help create more effective public policy based in research and demonstrable fact, not moral bias.

Marijuana’s use as an alternative to prescription opioids for people experiencing chronic pain comes at a crucial time. In 2015, more than 20,000 people died from an overdose related to prescription opioids, and Congress will consider funding for at least two bills designed to curb the prescription opioid epidemic this session. Significantly, another recent study showed that states with medical marijuana laws had nearly 25% fewer fatal opioid-related overdoses than states without similar provisions. Recognizing medical marijuana as one alternative to prescription opioids could be the breakthrough the medical community needs to curb opioid-related deaths.

But the Academies’ report revealed another major element of the medical marijuana debate: how little is known about the drug’s immediate and lasting effects. For example, we don’t know conclusively whether cannabis or cannabinoids are an effective treatment for anorexia nervosa or whether inhaling marijuana smoke causes asthma. There are a host of cancers including cervical and prostate cancer that may be influenced by regular marijuana consumption, but the exact relationship to marijuana is still unknown.

The lack of health-related research has nothing to do with marijuana’s prevalence. Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, and more than half of all U.S. states have legalized marijuana for varying medical purposes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in eight Americans reported smoking the drug at least once in the past 12 months. So why is there so little research on the acute and chronic effects of this drug?

Marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 substance according to the Controlled Substances Act, which means the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and federal government recognize no known medical purposes for marijuana and consider it to have a high potential for abuse. Without federally recognized medical uses, obtaining funding for research into the effects of marijuana is difficult to come by and often requires elaborate safety precautions. Yet despite the growing number of states that have legalized some form of marijuana use, the DEA is unlikely to change the drug’s Schedule 1 status anytime soon. In August of 2016, the DEA confirmed that marijuana would remain a Schedule 1 substance after a report from the Federal Drug Administration found no proof of marijuana’s efficacy as a medicine  at that time.

The lack of adequate research into the medical uses and long-term health effects of marijuana as highlighted by the Academies’ report is hurting Americans. Whether marijuana has a wide variety of uses or only a few specific applications, the public deserves to know how best to use or avoid marijuana. Ignoring medical marijuana as an alternative to prescription opioids is tantamount to negligence in a time when tens of thousands of people are dying from preventable opioid-related overdoses. It’s time the federal government gave its full support to further researching exactly how marijuana impacts our bodies.


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