Cannabis occupies an unusual spot in the US. It’s classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal government. Yet, cannabis is legal in some form in a majority of states. This setup creates difficulties for researchers. The need for information is growing but scientists face multiple barriers to get there.
Earlier this year, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), explained: “Frankly, we know far too little about the benefits and risks of smoked marijuana. There have been very few studies that have actually rigorously tested that.”
The NIH grows cannabis for research purposes. However, the growth site is limited to only one state.
“People don’t realize that I run a farm in Mississippi that grows marijuana because I’m required to do so,” Collins said. “But that’s the only source that investigators can use, and it may be rather different than what you could get in one of the states where marijuana is now approved in terms of its constituents.”
Cannabis potency is rising. Growers are focusing on high-THC strains to satisfy customer demand, so government-grown cannabis represents only a sliver of what people are actually consuming. In addition to a limited supply, researchers also have to jump through multiple hurdles to get their cannabis studies approved. Despite these set backs, there is growing momentum to both expand sites where cannabis can be grown for research and to loosen regulations for research overall.
The Health subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing in January where lawmakers expressed desire for new cannabis laws. Specifically, they discussed three bills related to cannabis research. It’s a sign of progress although nothing was decided at that meeting.
Due to the restrictions described, scientists are coming up with creative ways to conduct their research. For example, a team at University of Colorado at Boulder has set up a “Cannavan.” They park outside a study paticipant’s home while they consume cannabis inside. Afterward, the participants heads to the Cannavan for tests. The study doesn’t fit the rigorous standard usually applied to university-level work but it’s the best they can do until the federal government relaxes some of its laws.
We hope to see things change in the near future with greater access to research funds (and variety of cultivars) for scientists and a growing commitment to the study of cannabis medicine from regulators.