WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — When Dr. Jeffrey Chen's team at the University of California, Los Angeles is looking for cannabis they can use for their medical research, there's one place in the United States they're supposed to look: a Schedule I-licensed grow at the University of Mississippi.
But Chen won't take the Ole Miss weed. Instead, he's looking elsewhere: Canada.
"[Mississippi is] growing, for the lack of a better word, skunk weed from 1970," said Chen, who is executive director at UCLA's Cannabis Research Initiative in the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
Researchers from UCLA going out of the country just to find usable cannabis for medical studies underlines the hurdles that researchers across America who want to look into the impacts of cannabis have in conducting research that will provide any real insight.
Cannabis' status as a Schedule I drug, they say, means the application process to even study the plant can take years, makes funding scarce, and when approval and funding finally come through, the products actually available for testing look nothing like what Americans in legal states are actually ingesting.
"You can reschedule cannabis to a lower level, like level IV, and you are going to get a lot more research done than you would at Schedule I."
The vast separation in product between what the government provides and what Americans are using, Chen says, is like studying Lucky Charms to find out what the health benefits are of eating Raisin Bran every day, just because both are a cereal.
"The study results themselves are all coherent, but are those conclusions relevant to the real world?" Chen asked. "The answer is no."
This dearth of medical cannabis research has now become a talking point on Capitol Hill, especially with the introduction of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard's Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2019.
"Too many people claim that there are no studies and no actual reports that exist," the Hawaiian Democrat and 2020 presidential candidate told Circa.
Gabbard says that more and more people are recognizing "the need for there to be an incontrovertible study that actually just provides the facts."
Gabbard's bill seeks to "deschedule" marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and then let states decide how to regulate cannabis on a local level.
In the CSA, drugs are divided into five categories. Schedule I is the highest. Heroin and LSD are some of the drugs that join marijuana in Schedule I, and those drugs are defined by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as having "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."
It's marijuana's position in Schedule I that makes it so difficult to study, say researchers and advocates. And with the increase of people using cannabis for medical purposes, many researchers and politicians believe it should be removed from the Schedule I standing.
"As long as cannabis is Schedule I, the barriers to research are so significant that researchers and health care professionals can't really do what they need to do," explained David Mangone of Americans For Safe Access, an organization that advocates for better access to medicinal marijuana and additional research.
"So, any conversation that moves cannabis out of the scheduling is a good one," he added.
Both Mangone and Chen say there are many additional research avenues that would open up should cannabis be descheduled — from how to correctly dose cannabis for medical patients, to studies on how ingesting highly concentrated cannabis through a process called "dabbing" affects people differently from smoking, vaporizing or eating an edible.
"It's crazy that from my office in UCLA I can see a dispensary, but I can't go anywhere near that stuff."
Descheduling, though, is not the only option. John Hudak, a marijuana researcher at the Brookings Institution, says that cannabis can also be moved to a lower designation on the CSA, in a process known as "rescheduling."
He says the conversation about descheduling versus prohibition is "a false dichotomy."
"You can reschedule cannabis to a lower level, like level IV, and you are going to get a lot more research done than you would at Schedule I," he explained.
Chen agrees that even lowering cannabis to Schedule IV or V would help a great deal — it would likely open up more funding, because the definitions of Schedule IV and V drugs state that they have medical value. It would also likely make it easier to acquire cannabis, and there would be a more diverse product base to choose from because producer licenses would be easier to get, he said.
But a major hurdle that would remain, according to Chen, would be a lack of access to the cannabis actually being used by everyday people — which would lead to the most relevant and useful results.
"It's crazy that from my office in UCLA I can see a dispensary," he pointed out. "But I can't go anywhere near that stuff."
There are others, though, who don't believe it should be easier to get closer to "that stuff" until the research has been done.
"I think now is the time to change the rules about doing research, not to change the rules about the scheduling of the drug overall," said Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md. A physician-turned-politician himself, Harris is introducing a bill soon that will make medical cannabis research easier without moving cannabis from Schedule I at all.
Harris says that in discussions with medical professionals and academic researchers, he's heard a lot of hesitancy about re- or descheduling cannabis before more studies have been conducted.
"This has the potential to be a very dangerous step we're taking," he added, "to accept marijuana as something that is safe and legal."
Chen agrees, he says, with Harris' sentiment that descheduling cannabis could bring an element of harm to the public.
"There are elements [of] truth to it," Chen said. "There are certain types of cannabis and certain ways to use it that we don't have enough data on."
Holding up descheduling, however, he says, may not be the best way to figure out what that harm is, while at the same time more and more people gain legal access to cannabis.
"I think now is the time to change the rules about doing research, not to change the rules about the scheduling of the drug overall."
"Clearly, federal prohibition hasn't stopped 33 states from legalizing cannabis and supplying it to people," Chen pointed out. He would rather get moving on looking into the real impacts of cannabis — through actual research with the plant and not just through the observational studies or studies using lab-created CBD they are conducting now. It will take some time, anyway, he says, to produce useful research.
"If they want answers quick, like in the next three to four to five years," explained Chen, "the only way to do that is to do something dramatic," like a large pot of funding and a 100-percent reduction in the amount of paperwork necessary to qualify to study cannabis.
In the meantime, he says, more states will probably legalize the use of cannabis for medical or recreational purposes. And that means more people using it without studies to inform their habits.
In the end, though, both Chen and Hudak agree that the choice to deschedule is a political one, not a scientific one.
"We don't have enough research to suggest — based on the criteria involved in scheduling — that marijuana should be removed from it. But from the same point, we have pretty good evidence that alcohol and tobacco should be Schedule I substances," explained Hudak. "But that's because these are political decisions."
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