Marijuana Research: The Feds Are Slowly Warming To It

The federal government monopolizes almost all meaningful marijuana research. The government even maintains its own “legal” crop at Ole Miss that pumps out pretty useless and questionable statistics and factoids about marijuana. But the federal government is warming to the idea of allowing outside, extended research into cannabis.

Scientific research is a good thing. So why does the federal government still so often block it?
Scientific research is a good thing. So why does the federal government still so often block it?

The federal government recently announced that it would help fund a study of sewer fodder in Washington State in an effort to determine how much cannabis use is really going on post-legalization. Second, and more importantly, the Obama administration has opted to eliminate the need for Public Health Service reviews for outside studies.

The New York Times wrote about this Washington State sewer study:

The federal government is chipping in money for a three-year pilot study using sewage samples to determine levels of marijuana use in two Washington cities — research that could help answer some key questions about pot legalization, the University of Puget Sound announced Monday.

Specifically, the National Institute of Health is giving approximately $120,000 to the University of Puget Sound for Dan Burgard, an associate chemistry professor at the University, to lead a three-year study analyzing per-capita pot usage in Washington after its first marijuana retail stores opened last summer. This “study is aimed at helping determine whether the opening of pot shops increase[s] a community’s marijuana use, whether data from the wastewater correlate to what people answer in surveys about their marijuana use, and whether weekday or weekend marijuana use has increased.” This data will likely help Washington hone in on the actual number of users, how often they are using, and what demand really looks like, all of which ultimately affects the entire marketplace when it comes to licensing and additional regulations for marijuana businesses.

The study should also help us learn more about the existing black market and whether legalization has helped reduce customer traffic there:

The data could also show how much of the illicit black market for marijuana the state’s legal stores are capturing, by comparing the wastewater data with the state’s close tracking of marijuana sales. If sales figures continue to rise, but the wastewater levels show that overall pot use is flat, that would indicate that people are getting their marijuana at legal stores instead of on the black market. But if sales figures rise and the sewer evidence of pot use also rises, that could indicate that people are still buying on the black market — and that legalization has increased overall use in the state without displacing much of the black market.

Also on Monday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that marijuana researchers need no longer submit proposed cannabis studies to the U.S. Public Health Service for review, eliminating a significant hurdle for non-federally funded or state-funded research that doesn’t exist for the study of other Schedule I controlled substances (go figure). The Department of Health and Human Services found the reviews to be “redundant,” and stated that its eliminating this previously mandatory review will “facilitate further research to advance our understanding about the health risks and any potential benefits of medications using marijuana or its components or derivatives.”

Despite the above changes, the National Institute on Drug Abuse remains the only “lawful” marijuana grow in the U.S. and researchers must still acquire the seeds and plants from National Institute’s lone Ole Miss grow and this remains quite difficult. But that’s not all: researchers must also acquire a Schedule I license from the Drug Enforcement Administration to receive, cultivate or maintain cannabis for research which is equally hard to get.

Unfortunately, the politics of our failed prohibitionist system still permeate cannabis research and so until politicians and the DEA stand down and start truly opening up scientific research into cannabis, the United States will continue falling behind other countries in this arena and the world’s knowledge base will be the ultimate loser.