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Top Federal Health Official Says Marijuana’s Legal Status Is Inhibiting Research

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A top federal health official said on Wednesday that marijuana’s status as a Schedule I controlled substance inhibits research and that there’s a need for an alternative regulatory pathway so that researchers can more easily study cannabis.

During a hearing before the House Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) shared an anecdote about cannabis lotion helping her mother treat pain in her knees and asked what could be done to facilitate research into marijuana’s therapeutic potential.

Lee said that following knee surgery, her mom “was out getting her walker repaired and a woman gave her some lotion and she tried it and she never was in pain anymore.”

“This was cannabis lotion, so I have witnessed at least my mother and other senior citizens the health benefits of cannabis,” she said. “I know good and well, based on personal experience, that it works for some people.”

The congresswoman then asked witnesses at the hearing for an update on the status of federally approved research into marijuana’s medical benefits.

“The public is using this and so we’re essentially now playing catch up with what’s already happening and we need to understand the potential beneficial effects of these compounds derived from cannabis, particularly for pain,” Helene Langevin, director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), said in response. “There’s a lot of potential there.”

She also noted that NCCIH her department is providing $3 million in grants to fund studies into the benefits of cannabis compounds beside THC, with a focus on developing therapeutic alternatives to prescription opioids.

“We really want to understand how it works but also we’re very interested in looking at potential interactions of cannabis with drugs,” Langevin said.

Lee followed up to ask the head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) if it’s possible to catch up with the numerous states that have legalized medical cannabis in terms of research and, if not, “how can we help you catch up with where the states are?”

NIH Director Francis Collins put it plainly: “We do have a problem in that because marijuana is Schedule I, it is difficult to set up research programs.”

“We’ve certainly been talking about the need for some kind of alternative pathway so that we could do research on potential valuable uses of marijuana without going through such an incredibly bureaucratic rigmarole that it scares away most investigators from even doing the work,” he said. “And we could use some help from Congress in coming up with a better strategy about that part.”

That admission is similar to what the head of the National Institutes on Drug Abuse told the same committee in April.

“Indeed, the moment that a drug gets a Schedule I, which is done in order to protect the public so that they don’t get exposed to it, it makes research much harder,” NIDA Director Nora Volkow said at the time. “This is because [researchers] actually have to through a registration process that is actually lengthy and cumbersome.”

Later in Thursday’s hearing, anti-legalization Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) flagged legislation he’s sponsoring to simplify the registration process for researchers to obtain cannabis and also allow them to access marijuana from private manufacturers.

“It’s been bouncing around for a couple of years and hopefully it has some legs that will make research into the potential medical benefits of marijuana much easier before it further expands with what I think a lot of false hopes,” he said, adding that studies have shown marijuana to interact with anesthesia.

“Clearly this is not a drug that acts only on its own and clearly interacts with other systems in the body, including analgesic systems, in ways that we don’t fully understand,” he said.

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Photo by Aphiwat chuangchoem.

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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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