Big Pharma and the DEA Stand in the Way of Cannabis Research

Blaze it but DO NOT Study It

By Alex Dew

Marijuana is more popular than ever, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s legal for recreational use by people over 21 in eleven states. Medical marijuana is considered useful in treating conditions from epilepsy to Crohn’s disease to PTSD and even eating disorders. But despite all this medical promise and the ever-growing list of states legalizing marijuana, scientists consistently face roadblocks when trying to study it. 

Dr. Sue Sisley, a primary care physician and psychiatrist in Scottsdale, Arizona, wanted to study the effectiveness of marijuana in treating military veterans with PTSD. Many of her patients had told her that cannabis was highly effective in reducing their symptoms, and though skeptical, she wanted to study it. But from the moment she began her study, she confronted one obstacle after another. She was promptly fired from the University of Arizona, she lost a study partner at another university, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hindered her efforts to find study participants. After all of these setbacks, she was finally able to get her study underway in 2016. 

Since 1968, the DEA has prevented scientists from doing any marijuana studies unless they use weed from a twelve-acre farm at the University of Mississippi. And according to Sisley, the University of Mississippi weed isn’t exactly dank: a “powdery mishmash of stems, sticks, and leaves” with a THC level of only eight percent, it often tested positive for yeast and mold content. If this weed were comparable to the weed most Americans are using this wouldn’t be a problem, but that isn’t the case. Dispensaries abound with marijuana that often tests at THC levels over twenty percent. Even illegally sold marijuana often tests at least more than fifteen percent. Sisley wouldn’t be able to recreate the effects of real-world marijuana on her subjects, and she didn’t even feel comfortable handing out the moldy government weed to them. 

Scientists who want to study marijuana have to obtain clearance from local, state, and federal governments, as well from the National Institute of Drug Abuse and the DEA. The NIDA puts the kibosh on any studies that try to illuminate any positive health effects of marijuana, because it runs contrary to its goal of reducing what it considers “drug abuse.” And because the DEA classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic along with LSD and heroin, scientists studying it don’t have access to the funding provided to other scientific studies. They aren’t allowed to study cannabis concentrates and edibles, despite these products’ widespread use. Ironically, the government makes it easier for scientists to study “harder” drugs like mushrooms and ecstasy than marijuana. 

It wasn’t until a month ago that the DEA finally unveiled a plan for amending the agency’s policies on scientifically studying marijuana. Under the new plan, a limited number of scientists and companies will be allowed to grow marijuana for studies, but they will have to turn it over to the DEA, which will then dole it out. For Sisley, like many scientists, this plan isn’t sufficient, so she sued the government, asking it for the legal justification for denying her a grow license. A secret memo recently released by the Department of Justice revealed that the Department had blocked the DEA from allowing Sisley and other scientists to cultivate their own marijuana. Evidently, in 2016, the DEA had wanted to grant cultivation licenses to 33 applicants including scientists at UC Davis and Sisley, but Jeff Sessions, notorious for his vehement opposition to marijuana, blocked it from doing so. 

The DEA’s most recent decision to amend its rules about studying marijuana appears to be the result of a legal opinion written by the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel. Sessions had always claimed that the DEA could not revise its policy because it would violate the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. But according to this new legal opinion, it is the current set up that requires scientists to rely solely on weed grown at the University of Mississippi farm that is a violation of the treaty. 

While the changes planned by the DEA are a step in the right direction, they won’t totally solve this “suppression of scientific freedom,” as Sisley describes it. Many scientists and doctors, including the American Medical Association and the American College of Physicians, argue for the reclassification of marijuana on the DEA schedule. Legalizing marijuana nationwide would also remove many of the obstacles preventing scientists from studying it. 

The United States has a long history of demonizing marijuana, driven by racist attitudes and greedy politicians who want to protect the Big Pharma lobbyists that pad their pockets. Few people stand to lose if marijuana is legalized — the states that have legalized it demonstrate that it is enormously helpful in creating jobs, reducing incarceration rates, and raising tax revenue. Two-thirds of Americans support marijuana legalization, and over 90% support legalizing it for either both recreational and medical use or just medical use. Nearly 55 million Americans, a whopping 22% of the population, smoke marijuana, almost as many people as cigarette smokers. And weed use is only increasing as more states legalize it and it moves further into the mainstream. And yet the DEA, the NIDA, the DOJ, and the Attorney General still make it virtually impossible for scientists to study it. 

Any substance that is this widely used needs to be studied by scientists. Not only is it an issue of scientific suppression, but also one of public health. Despite the fact that so many Americans use marijuana, we know very little about it, both negative and positive. We can’t answer important questions about the effects of marijuana use or foresee any potential pitfalls from its use if the federal government continues to stand in the way of scientists who want to study it. For example, there isn’t really conclusive information about whether marijuana is a gateway drug, or how efficacious it is in treating mental health issues. Americans need to be armed with this information if they are going to continue smoking weed, and all of the data indicates that weed isn’t going away soon. 

The absurdity of marijuana being so readily available in so many states and so widely used and yet kept out of the hands of scientists begs the question of what is motivating the federal government from preventing marijuana studies. The answer is easy for agencies like the NIDA and the DEA, whose sole purpose is to prevent drug abuse, and these agencies often fail to see the nuances between actual drug abuse, casual recreational pot use, and use for medical benefits. The NIDA denies that it suppressed any studies that could demonstrate any therapeutic effects of marijuana, but it’s record shows otherwise. These agencies that measure their success in drug busts and reduced use statistics clearly have nothing to gain from allowing more medical studies. 

“We’ve definitely seen a more active opposition from the pharma industry,” said Amanda Reiman, manager of marijuana law and policy at the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group that promotes drug reform. “Research conducted by myself and others shows that medical cannabis patients are substituting cannabis for pharmaceuticals at a very high rate, and for alcohol at a pretty high rate as well.”

But what about the DOJ and the other agencies of the federal government that have consistently stood in the way of scientists trying to study marijuana? What about the senators and governors from states where marijuana is yet to be legalized who continue to resist it? In America, where corporate interest is virtually impossible to disentangle from political motivation, it is clear that some very wealthy parties are bent on preventing marijuana from being studied or ever becoming nationally legal. 

In the states that legalized marijuana prior to 2013, prescriptions for painkillers and other pharmaceuticals decreased. The typical doctor in a state where marijuana is legal prescribed 1,826 fewer doses of painkillers in a given year than the typical doctor in a non-legal state. Pharmaceutical companies have an interest in squelching marijuana studies and preventing legalization because they want to protect their profits. Yes, the same pharmaceutical companies responsible for the opiate crisis, one of the largest public health catastrophes in recent history, are the companies that spend millions lobbying the federal government and donating to anti-marijuana candidates. Insys Therapeutics, a company that manufactures powerful fentanyl-based painkillers, donated $500,000 million to anti-legalization efforts in Arizona in 2018. The legalization initiative in Arizona failed. The private prison industry also has an interest in repressing marijuana studies and legalization, as it has seen inmate numbers drop in legal states. 

It is time to stop letting the same pharmaceutical companies that have decimated entire communities and been responsible for the deaths of almost 47,000 people in 2018 alone and the private prison companies that grotesquely profit from mass incarceration control the scientific process. It is time to revise policy that has its roots in the racist War on Drugs, policy that suppresses scientific thought and hinders progress and holds public health hostage. The DEA’s recently announced amendments aren’t enough. If scientists are going to effectively study marijuana, which is in the direct interest of the citizens of America, they need to be able to access and cultivate their own supplies without any federal agency intervening to control them. Marijuana must be reclassified on the narcotic schedule and eventually legalized nationally. The vast majority of states are on the path to eventual legalization, and with the federal government on board, we can be sure that it is done so safely and its use is informed by a wealth of good science.    


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