In this photo taken Tuesday, May 5, 2015, marijuana plants grows at a Minnesota Medical Solutions greenhouse in Otsego, Minn. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP)
A long-standing bureaucratic obstacle to privately-funded medical marijuana research has just been removed, effective immediately.
Until today if you wanted to conduct marijuana research, you'd need to do the following:
- Submit your study proposal to the Food and Drug Administration for a thorough review of its "scientific validity and ethical soundness."
- Submit your proposal to a separate Public Health Service (PHS) board, which performs pretty much the exact same review as the FDA.
- Get a marijuana permit from the Drug Enforcement Administration.
- Finally, obtain a quantity of medical marijuana via the Drug Supply Program run by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which maintains a monopoly on medical marijuana grown for research in the U.S.
As you might imagine, this can be a complicated, time-consuming process. Step 2, the PHS review, has been a subject of particular consternation among researchers and advocates. That step is not required for research into any other drug, including cocaine and heroin. The PHS review is nearly identical to the one performed by the FDA. Sometimes, it can take months to complete.
In recent years, advocates of overhauling marijuana laws, researchers, members of Congress, and even marijuana legalization opponents have called for the PHS review to be eliminated in the name of streamlining research. This week, the Department of Health and Human Services agreed, determining that the PHS review process is redundant with the FDA review, and that it is "no longer necessary to support the conduct of scientifically-sound studies into the potential therapeutic uses of marijuana."
"The president has often said that drug policy should be dictated by unimpeded science instead of ideology, and it’s great to see the Obama administration finally starting to take some real action to back that up," said Tom Angell of the Marijuana Majority, a pro-legalization group.
Even those who oppose legalization agreed.
"I think it's a sensible change; but people are being delusional if they think this will result in a flood of research on the drug," said Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an anti-legalization group. "But it's a step in the right direction as the development of a non smoked cannabis medication goes forward."
I've reached out to some researchers for reaction too, and will update when I hear from them.
There are still more bureaucratic hurdles to marijuana research than to research in any other drug. NIDA's monopoly on legal marijuana production doesn't exist for any other drug, meaning that heroin and cocaine remain easier for researchers to work with.
"The next step should be moving marijuana out of Schedule I to a more appropriate category, which the administration can do without any further Congressional action," said Angell. "Given what the president and surgeon general have already said publicly about marijuana’s relative harms and medical uses, it’s completely inappropriate for it to remain in a schedule that’s supposed to be reserved for substances with a high potential for abuse and no therapeutic value."
Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.