Editorial: DEA decision on marijuana holds back medical science

Editorial: DEA decision on marijuana holds back medical science

By The Herald Editorial Board

The federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s decision last week refusing to reclassify marijuana from the list of the nation’s most dangerous drugs to a less-restrictive classification defies not only the 25 states and the District of Columbia that now allow for the legal use of medical marijuana; it defies and hampers medical science itself.

Washington and Rhode Island requested a review of marijuana’s federal classification in 2011, hoping that the federal government would recognize the growing consensus in support of the potential for marijuana’s medical benefits. Instead, the DEA decided to continue to classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, the same as other dangerous drugs with no accepted medical application, including heroin and LSD. Reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule 2 drug would have placed it among drugs with medical uses but still considered to have a high potential for abuse, including oxycodone, methadone and Adderall.

The reasoning? Chuck Rosenberg, acting head of the DEA, said marijuana had to remain Schedule 1 because “it has no currently accepted medical use.”

But marijuana has no currently accepted medical use because its Schedule 1 classification has hampered research, studies, development of potential medications and their approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

Michael Collins, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, which seeks to legalize marijuana, noted the contradiction in a New York Times story: “They are placing researchers in a Catch-22, by saying ‘We are not lifting this research barrier because there’s not enough evidence.’ But then people say, ‘We can’t do research because of this barrier.’”

Currently, only the University of Mississippi is allowed to grow marijuana for medical research and clinical trials, limiting its availability for research that could show its medical benefits.

That may change; the Times story notes that the DEA also issued a proposed change in policy that would allow other universities and private companies to apply to grow marijuana for medical research. But, as Dr. Sanjay Gupta, chief medical correspondent for CNN noted in a commentary Friday, even potentially increasing the supply of marijuana may not foster research if it remains a Schedule 1 drug.

Even if the DEA grants a license for research, Gupta said, under Schedule 1 requirements, universities have to install heavy-duty safes and security systems, adding to the expense of research. And university leadership also may be leery of approving work on a Schedule 1 drug.

Gupta noted the experience of a former University of Arizona researcher, Dr. Sue Sisley, who sought to study marijuana’s potential for treating post-traumatic stress in veterans. Sisley was let go by the Arizona university. She instead found private funding and won DEA approval for a medical marijuana trial, but it took her seven years.

Research is lacking, but that doesn’t mean medical marijuana doesn’t show promise for treating a range of diseases and conditions. A report in The Lancet journal on public health last October noted the possibilities for treating seizures, Crohn’s disease and other inflammatory conditions of the gut, alleviating chronic pain during palliative care, preventing organ rejection in transplant patients, treating psychosis and easing nausea and improving appetite for those undergoing chemotherapy to treat cancer.

Among the more promising research is into a component of marijuana: cannabidiol or CBD, which lacks the pyschoactive effects found in the THC in marijuana. A Colorado mother, because of that state’s relaxed laws on the availability of medical marijuana, was able to find a treatment for her daughter who had a rare genetic condition called Dravet’s syndrome, causing her to suffer seizures 50 times a day. Using a a laboratory-tested oil containing CBD, the 7-year-old child’s seizures were controlled enough to allow a feeding tube to be removed. Without the treatment, The Lancet report said, the child had not been expected to survive past early childhood.

It has been more than 10 years since the FDA’s last review of marijuana’s medical uses, when the agency found research had progressed but had not met federal standards of safety or effectiveness.

Keeping marijuana on the Schedule 1 list makes it hard to see when it ever might meet such a standard.

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