One of the greatest benefits to come from adult access to safe, clean and responsibly handled cannabis—besides, of course, all that safe, clean and responsibly handled cannabis!—is that, instead of having to rely on anecdotes, third-hand stories and “theories” (aka “wild guesses”) about what cannabis can and can’t do, we can now conduct cannabis research and get real, authoritative answers about the many ways cannabis can be a powerful medicine.
But just because cannabis is now fully or partially legal in over half the states doesn’t mean there aren’t significant obstacles to getting that much-needed research rolling. To have any medical validity, clinical trials are by nature lengthy, cautious and carefully planned affairs, and on top of this, cannabis’ shaky legal footing on the federal has put a major chill on what might otherwise be a flood of valuable information. Here’s why.
How Are Clinical Trials Like First-Time Marijuana Smokers? Both Go Slow and Low
From the outside, clinical research might appear to be an open-and-shut affair. A relatively simple trial might compare two drugs: Half the subjects take Drug A; half take Drug B. Which group sees the best results?
But to gather meaningful results, trials need to compare those groups in a tightly controlled environment—to reduce interactions with other drugs, for instance—and they typically need to do so for a long period of time. Trials lasting not weeks but months and even years aren’t’ uncommon.
And while some drugs—like cannabis—show exciting promise in treating some notoriously difficult conditions, such as multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia, it’s essential to keep each trial’s goals modest and achievable. Medical “breakthroughs” rarely are true leaps ahead, but instead build upon the careful, well-documented research that preceded it.
Cannabis Research: The Federal Problem
The regulations for drug trials on the federal level are notoriously strict and cumbersome, but cannabis faces special hurdles. For one thing, researchers wishing to study cannabis—or just its component cannabinoids—must seek approval from a laundry list of agencies. Including the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as well as a host of local and institutional offices and boards. That’s an immense amount of work even before the work of running the trail has begun.
Secondly, federal cannabis trials require the source material come from the single government-run farm in Mississippi. Frustratingly, some studies report that the quantity and quality produced here don’t match what a consumer would find at a typical dispensary (not to mention an exceptional one!). As of last year, the DEA was soliciting applications for additional farms to supply federal trials, but response—due in large part to the regulations detailed above—has been lackluster at best.
Hope From Abroad?
If cannabis research is somewhat throttled in this country, there are glimmers of hope from across the water. In England, prestigious Oxford University announced a major cannabis research initiative, and Israel—home of Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, who first discovered the existence and role of cannabinoids—is a hotbed of research. While the discoveries from abroad are meaningful and exciting, we wish more of this research were taking place in the United States as well. Regardless of the federal government’s take on cannabis, we know that it has a significant role to play in the medicines of tomorrow. And to produce those medicines, we need to start the research today.