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Top Federal Drug Official Personally Hesitates To Study Marijuana Because Of Schedule I Research Barriers



The top federal drug researcher says even she is reluctant to conduct studies on Schedule I drugs like marijuana because of the “cumbersome” rules that scientists face when investigating them.

Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), made the comments during a Wednesday forum moderated by The Hill and sponsored by the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation (CPEAR) that also featured congressional lawmakers, state regulators and industry stakeholders.

Volkow has repeatedly talked about barriers to marijuana research in the U.S., where scientists must jump through bureaucratic hoops to access cannabis for study purposes. That’s because the plant is designated as Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act, the most restrictive category.

But it’s not just your average researcher who struggles to navigate the complex application process. Volkow—who runs America’s top drug science agency—said she personally avoids studying Schedule I substances because of the federal red tape.

“One of the barriers that has actually been noted is that cannabis, marijuana, by being a Schedule I substance, requires certain procedures that actually can be very lengthy,” she said. “In some instances, it detracts researchers who want to investigate it because it’s just much more cumbersome than doing studies with other substances.”

“I can testify to it. As a researcher, I always hesitate to go into doing research with Schedule I drugs. I do research in human subjects [and] it’s much more cumbersome,” Volkow said. “And this is what we hear also from our grantees, that it takes much longer to get the approval in order to initiate the research, and it’s more costly, and that actually delays everyone’s progress.”

The director also talked about how other federal agencies’ interpretations of international treaties have restricted research by making it so scientists have only been able to obtain marijuana for research from a single federally authorized through NIDA.

She said that “this is very limiting because you can imagine that there’s a wide variety of plants out there with very different properties—and so, to the extent that we are limited to just one product, that actually in many ways defeats the purpose of understanding the components that are responsible for therapeutic benefits.”

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is taking steps to approve additional cannabis manufacturers, but Volkow said in an earlier interview with Marijuana Moment that it should be taken a step further by allowing scientists to access cannabis from state-legal dispensaries.

Also, in a recent interview with FiveThirtyEight, the official raised eyebrows when she said she’s yet to see scientific evidence that occasional cannabis use by adults is seriously harmful.

Volkow also reiterated separate concerns at the new Hill event she has with the harms caused by the criminalization of drugs, something she has addressed in several other interviews and op-eds recently.

“I think that the stigma it has around it, and continues to surround addiction and the use of drugs, has actually jeopardized our ability to intervene both on prevention and treatment,” she said. “Our society overall has criminalized people that take drugs, and this has been shown repeatedly that it’s not only not beneficial, but it actually exacerbates the outcomes of individuals that are put in prison or in jail for the use of drugs.”

Pointing to racial racial disparities in prohibition enforcement, she said that “criminalizing drug users has also exacerbated health inequalities by promoting incarceration or certain groups.”

Current policy is “very negative as it relates to how we have criminalized our drug users,” the top drug science official said. “But also that stigma has interfered with the healthcare system to actually engage in the screening and proper treatment of individuals, whether they are early on the stage of a soft drug use disorder where an intervention can help them and prevent them from escalating, to intervening individuals that already have a moderate or severe substance use disorder that currently if not treated could actually have a higher risk of very negative outcomes, including death.”

The conversation with Vokow was just one component of the wide-ranging Hill event, where Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) and others also participated.

Hickenlooper, who served as governor of Colorado when the state became among the first to legalize marijuana via the ballot, addressed his past opposition to reform and how he’s since seen that concerns about the societal risks of legalization were unfounded.

“I believe that we should deschedule marijuana. I think the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that that we should deschedule it,” he said. “I do think we should recognize the past injustices [of prohibition] and we should use that process of descheduling—of essentially legalizing marijuana—to address some of those inequities and make sure that those those communities that suffered most grievously during the war on drugs, they get some of the benefit from these changing attitudes towards marijuana.”

He was also asked about the prospect of passing cannabis banking reform through defense spending legislation and said that he hasn’t been in Congress long enough to know for sure, but “I do think it makes a tremendous amount of sense to allow banks to in those states where it’s been legalized.”

Mace, meanwhile, is the sponsor of a new, Republican-led bill to legalize marijuana that she views as a compromise between comprehensive proposals that Democrats are championing and scaled-down reform measures from her GOP colleagues.

She said that she tried to “make sure that I put forward a bill that was common sense, that was very pragmatic and that would actually have something for everyone.”

Also speaking at the event were academics and a California state cannabis regulator, among others.

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