More freedom for cannabis research would improve our understanding

15th September 2021

Cannabis has been the most commonly used recreational drug for decades, with usage rates around the world currently at an all-time high. In addition, an increasing number of jurisdictions opting for the legalisation of medical cannabis and even the decriminalisation and legalisation of recreational cannabis.

Despite the ever-growing legal access to cannabis products, however, scientists and researchers in many countries are still struggling to access the same products. The US is a particularly stark example.

While almost 20 states in the US have now legalised recreational cannabis – and over 30 allow its medicinal use, researchers are still unable to use the products that Americans are actually consuming in their trials and studies.

This is because despite ongoing legalisation, cannabis – in all forms, excluding hemp – remains illegal at the federal level. Therefore, all cannabis research carried out in the US is done using government-approved cannabis that doesn’t reflect what people are consuming.

According to National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow, these limitations are unnecessary. In a recent interview with Marijuana Moment, she said, “I think it would be theoretically ideal to understand the actual products that people are consuming, as opposed to trying to understand it with a different compound—a different plant that will vary in terms of the contents of ingredients.

Since dispensaries are selling products that are supposedly very specific for certain characteristics—there is not any one plant—without access to that variety and diversity of plant products, researchers cannot advance that question.”

Earlier this year, the US Drug Enforcement Administration announced that it was in the process of registering several additional American companies to produce cannabis for medical and scientific purposes.

However, this is yet to have a meaningful impact on cannabis research opportunities. While the new DEA decision may offer researchers more varieties of federally sanctioned products to choose from, it doesn’t address the conflict between federal and state laws.

Dr. Sue Sisly, a cannabis researcher and President of the Scottsdale Institute recently told NPR of her experience using government-sanctioned cannabis from the NIDA facility in Mississippi: “There’s thousands of different cannabis varieties that all have unique chemical profiles and produce unique clinical effects, but we didn’t have access to that normal diversity.”

She described the cannabis product as an “anaemic” green powder: “It’s very difficult to overcome the placebo effect when you have something that diluted,” she continued.

The lack of domestic supply has led some researchers to source cannabis products from outside the US – a move that is technically legal but is a difficult and “arduous” arrangement, according to Sisley.

Many in the US research and medical industries believe that it should be easier to access more diverse cannabis products that are representative of what is available through both legal medicinal and recreational channels. Only then will we be able to properly understand the real impacts and potential of cannabis use.

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