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With the legalization of cannabis spreading like wildfire across the US and now taking all of Canada by storm, many people are questioning the sudden change of heart. Although California first approved medical marijuana in 1996, the United States is still in the infancy stages of research, which leaves many people questioning the therapeutic efficacy of the claims.
This week's question from Quora addresses why there is ambiguity in the world of cannabis research.
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“Has medical science been able to prove that there is an actual benefit to using cannabis or medical marijuana?”
The first thing we have to understand about cannabis research is that prohibition severely crippled the United States and put us about seven decades behind in understanding cannabis. As a Schedule 1 substance, there is an immense amount of red tape to get beyond the restrictions to research the infamous herb in the first place. Additionally, once a study is approved, the material for the research can only come from one place, the University of Mississippi. The cannabis product that comes from this facility is frequently referred to as "Goop" by the researchers because it is a nasty, tar-like cannabis oil which doesn't even come close to resembling anything within the legal market. In fact, John Hopkins recently backed out of a study because the product they were supplied with by the US Government was so sub-par, they simply refused to invest the time for research which would undoubtedly be flawed.
Now, that being said, we have absolute proof of the medical efficacy of at least one compound: CBD. The US FDA just approved GW Pharmaceuticals, a European-based pharmaceutical producer, to start making and dispensing Epidiolex, a pure cannabidiol (CBD) extract made directly from the cannabis plant. This drug is not like Marinol – which is a manufactured THC isolate. Epidiolex is not synthetic; it's the natural element extracted from the cannabis sativa plant itself – a ground-breaking, first-of-its-kind, pharmaceutical. Ironically, Epidiolex is a Schedule 5 drug (the same classification as cough syrup), yet CBD from any other source is still considered a Schedule 1.
There's More Research than You Know
While the value-added research in the United States is definitely limited, it's not entirely absent. Take a look at this research, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 1974; researchers found cannabinoids caused leukemia cells to die and helped to reduce the size of lung cancer tumors. In fact, according to Safe Access Now, more than 15,000 peer-reviewed studies exist in the realm of cannabis research.
While only 9% of medical schools in the US teach anything about cannabis, with legalization, several US universities have started their own cannabis initiatives. Here are a few examples:
- UCLA's Cannabis Research Initiative, headed by Dr. Jeffery Chen is making great strides in cannabinoid research.
- The University of California, San Diego also has the Center for Medical Cannabis Research.
- Researchers at the University of New Mexico recently partnered with ReleafApp to research self-reported results from medical cannabis consumers.
- The University of Colorado Boulder has the Center for Research and Education Addressing Cannabis and Health (CU REACH).
- Colorado State University-Pueblo has the Institute of Cannabis Research.
However, other states aren't so receptive to the research. The University of Arizona fired Dr. Sue Sisley in 2014 for her research into using cannabis therapy for the treatment of PTSD in veterans. Clearly, some researchers have a tightrope to walk when exploring cannabis research.
Even though the United States is severely behind on legitimate cannabis research, the rest of the world is not. Other countries like Israel, the UK, Canada, and even Germany are producing ground-breaking research in cannabis science. In fact, it was an Israeli researcher who discovered the endocannabinoid system in the late 80s, early 90s. Thirty years of research have only begun to uncover the medical mysteries of this complex system. Yet, today, Israeli researchers and medical professionals are performing clinical trials and analysis on a variety of applications including cannabis therapy for children with autism.
Clearly, GW Pharmaceuticals is behind a lot of the research coming out of Europe. University of Oxford, London is also publishing quite a bit of research about cannabis for medical purposes, and the University of Bonn, Germany is also heavily involved in cannabis research.
Censorship is a Thing
As much as we'd like to think we have the luxury of free speech, the unfortunate truth is, we can speak it, but most major news sources and mainstream media outlets refuse to cover the topic. According to the FCC rules, discussing and/or encouraging drug abuse is prohibited, thus public networks and news outlets are hesitant to discuss cannabis news in fear of FCC complaints and backlash. After all, cannabis is still classified as a Schedule 1 substance, so in the eyes of the FCC, openly talking about cannabis use is no different than promoting heroin. Vice, MTV, and other cable channels can freely discuss the topic because they are considered subscription services, but openly discussing the miracles of cannabis on public media outlets is highly frowned upon.
Again, the biggest roadblock to obtaining the valid research we need is the US Government. Our lawmakers need to finally remove cannabis from the Schedule 1 classification, if for no other reason than to loosen the regulations around the research. Unfortunately, with Trump's Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee, it may be a few years before we see improvement.