New Law Weeds Out Some Blockers to Medical Cannabis Research

New Law Weeds Out Some Blockers to Medical Cannabis Research

Key Takeaways

  • A new law is making it easier for researchers to study cannabis.
  • Researchers previously faced barriers like lengthy study approval procedures and inadequate supply of high-potency products.
  • Experts hope new research on the medical use of cannabis might convince authorities to remove the drug from Schedule I designation.

A new Medical Marijuana Research Law is making it easier for researchers to study cannabis. The law is expected to expedite study approvals for scientists and allow for higher-potency cannabis in clinical trials.

Cannabis is still classified as a Schedule I drug, which is defined as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Other drugs or substances in this category include heroin, LSD, and ecstasy.

So far, 37 states have legalized cannabis for medical purposes, but the Schedule I classification imposes strict limits on cannabis research. Prior to the new law, scientists could not study the effects of high-potency products, and the process of obtaining study permits could take months.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which is responsible for reviewing cannabis research applications, was free to take as long it wanted to issue a decision, according to David A. Gorelick, MD, PhD, DLFAPA, a distinguished life fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

The new law removes some of these restrictions, stipulating that the U.S. attorney general must approve or deny a researcher’s application within 60 days.

“Right now, research is considered somewhat cumbersome,” Gorelick told Verywell. “The [law] has the most promise in the future to kind of unblock the cannabis medical drug-related development process.”

What Else Could This Law Change for Cannabis Research?

Among other changes, the law relaxes the rules on cannabis growers who supply the drug for scientific research.

In the past, the maximum grade for research-use Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, was lower than what people used legally and illegally, Gorelick explained.

“The complaint from researchers was that the cannabis they had to use for their own research was not representative of what people were actually using,” he said.

Gorelick said he expects higher-quality cannabis to be used in more rigorous clinical research studies in the near future. If researchers can prove that cannabis has legitimate medical use, they might be able to convince authorities to remove cannabis from its Schedule I designation.

The difficult task is that researchers need to get more granular in their studies and test if cannabis can be used to treat a specific condition or disease, according to Larry Walker, PhD, MS, a pharmaceutical researcher at the University of Mississippi.

Currently, in states where medical cannabis is legal, a healthcare provider could issue a permit for patients with conditions such as severe chronic pain, cancer, HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis.

“The capsule form that’s available for prescription is Schedule III,” Walker said.

If the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agrees that cannabis has legitimate medical use, he added, the drug could be given a Schedule II or an even lower designation.

For now, the law symbolizes the biggest breakthrough in research access.

“This is giving a nudge that [study reviewers] have to respond more quickly and they have to acknowledge that there may be legitimate drug development purposes that shouldn’t be thwarted.” Walker said.

What This Means For You

A new law is making it easier for scientists to research cannabis for medical use in the United States. But the drug is still on a Schedule I designation along with other substances like LSD, ecstasy, and heroin.

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  1. Drug Enforcement Agency. Drug scheduling.

  2. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Medical marijuana.

By Claire Wolters

Claire Wolters is a staff reporter covering health news for Verywell. She is most passionate about stories that cover real issues and spark change.