Treating various conditions and diseases with medical marijuana — from stress to cancer — is a heavily debated and heated topic among researchers, legislators and the general public. But there is one point everyone agrees on:
We can do better.
Over 25,000 mentions of the term “marijuana” appear in the MEDLINE/PubMed guide of resources from the National Library of Medicine. And yet, leaving pot classified as a Schedule I drug leaves behind many patients who could potentially benefit from its use. This makes it the hypothetical equal of heroin or ecstasy in terms of “relative harm” and makes it extremely difficult to carry out formal research. This classification means the study of marijuana is mainly independently funded, primarily through the University of San Diego’s Center for Medical Cannabis Research (established in 2000).
Few studies focus on the use of the whole plant and rather analyze its synthetic alternatives or play favorites with one cannabinoid, such as THC, studying it over and over again while others remain ignored.
The truth is, the data policymakers act on is a thin slice of the pie, while the DEA eliminates medical marijuana dispensaries and perpetuates old myths about marijuana. Meanwhile, a bid to reclassify the plant gets knocked down by DEA Administrator Michele Lionhart. Researchers are eager to study the effects of medical marijuana and pass them on, but are caught in a catch 22 of contradictory laws.
Necessary questions wait to be answered. What about the effects of medical marijuana on Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s patients? How do particular cannabinoids help soldiers recover from PTSD if you smoke it, vape it or eat it? There are over eighty active cannabinoids to choose from, including the popular THC and CBD American studies are so fond of.
As more legislation passes allowing the use of medical marijuana, it signals a societal shift in perception of marijuana from an illicit “hippie drug” to a new source of relief and even dignity for people struggling with their health. But we still need more data.
The Pie Needs to Be Bigger
In fact, only 3% of the 79 open studies in the United States are researching the drug’s effect on certain cancers, while three percent study chronic pain and another 18% study effects on mental illness. This leaves the remaining 46% analyzing the general effects of marijuana on conditions such as stress, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.
The U.S. government’s hesitation to conduct better research is astonishing when you look at what other countries are doing. Israel is studying over fifty varieties of the plant and its effects on nearly 200 different cancer cells while U.S. studies mainly focus on synthetics or particular cannabinoids.
When American researchers do earn federal approval, their source is a solitary farm at the University of Mississippi, operated by the NIDA. Since cannabis can’t cross most state lines, states doing research are limited in what they can actually study. Joint research between states with conflicting legislation is not possible. If one research facility receives permission to grow weed with the Schedule 1 classification, restrictive security measures still interfere with the process due to high expenses.
The Next Steps
The next steps concern bridging these gaps and studying the whole plant, as the key success of clinical trials often begins in foundational work through the analysis of plant life science. Anecdotal evidence shows promise for the use of medical marijuana for myriad diseases and conditions, but without the removal of archaic restrictions, the data remains disparaging.
Corinne Keating is a health and wellness writer. She enjoys a good read, a long hike, and writing for her blog, Why So Well.