Marijuana’s current status under federal law impedes scientific studies into its medical benefits, the U.S.’s top official overseeing health research says.
“One problem for us the way in which Schedule I has been applied to marijuana, which means that doing research in that and in other Schedule I drugs can be extremely onerous for researchers,” Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said during a U.S. Senate hearing on Tuesday. “The approvals take as long as a year to happen. One of the asks, I guess, if we had one in terms of a policy change, would be to provide special exemptions to allow more research to be done on Schedule I drugs.”
Under current law, marijuana is classified under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. That’s the most restrictive category, one which is supposed to be reserved for drugs with a high potential for abuse and no medical value.
Collins, appearing before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing about opioid issues, was responding to a question from Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) about research indicating that states with legal marijuana access see lower overdose rates.
“There’s a correlation there,” Collins said. “The questions always is for epidemiologists, is a correlation a causation? Is there a connection there? We don’t know, but it’s a very intriguing finding.”
Noting that NIH is “very interested in pursuing this space,” Collins said that cannabinoid receptors in the brain are an intriguing area of study in developing alternative pain management approaches.
“Among the various strategies that we expect to explore in greater intensity this public-private partnership for identifying alternatives to opioids would be cannabinoids of various types that might produce pain relief without producing the other unfortunate side effects that people are concerned about with smoked marijuana,” he said.
In response to a separate question from Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), Collins said that while research was still ongoing, data so far is “encouraging” on marijuana’s potential to be an opioid alternative.
“I think most of this still remains pretty unclear in terms of what the actual benefits are and for which conditions, although there are certainly encouraging signs that this may well turn out to be rigorously and evidentially supported in many cases,” he said.
Earlier this year, the Senate Appropriations Committee directed the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of NIH, to issue a report on the research roadblocks created by cannabis’s Schedule I status.