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Cannabis research focuses on harm, not benefits


One of the most confounding aspects about the federal government’s ongoing war on drugs is the continued classification of cannabis among what are known as Schedule 1 drugs. That means that cannabis – which is now legal either for medical or recreational use in some 36 states – is considered by federal authorities to be roughly as harmful as heroin, LSD, Ecstasy, Quaalude and peyote.

While there are various reasons cited for this policy, it’s no secret that federal monies devoted to cannabis research have had one main aim: to show the plant’s harmful effects.

This was made clear in an analysis, published in August, showing that of the more than $1.5 billion spent by the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom on cannabis research between the years 2000 and 2018, roughly half was “spent on understanding the potential harms of the recreational drug.”

According to a story published in Science, a magazine published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the analysis revealed that the U.S. contributed more than $1 billion of the research funds. And some of the experts quoted in the story emphasized that the resulting federal policy is likely reflective of a conservative political stance.

One of those experts is Daniel Mallinson, a cannabis policy researcher at Pennsylvania State University. Pointing to the “fact that most of the cannabis money is going to drug abuse and probably to cannabis use disorder versus medical purposes,” Mallinson told Science that the “government’s budget is a political statement about what we value as a society.”

The analysis in question is based on work done by Jim Hudson, a medical research consultant who surveyed 3,269 grants from 50 funding groups as diverse as the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Canada’s Arthritis Society. The result reveals a type of medical Catch-22: Cannabis research funding is restricted because it is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, and it continues to be classified as a Schedule 1 drug because research is lacking.

“It’s difficult to break that (cycle),” Mallinson told Science.

Such an analysis isn’t news to Kevin Oliver. As executive director of WANORML, Washington state’s affiliate of the cannabis lobbying group NORML, Oliver is well aware of what he describes as the “long history of law-enforcement agencies … in regard to lobbying efforts to maintain a prohibited status.”

In addition to the “asset seizures” from which the law-enforcement agencies profit, Oliver says the “prohibitionist vales and mores … are prevalent in conservative members of Congress that maintain the federal schedule status quo.”

In 2016, the U.S. Drug and Enforcement Administration rejected efforts to reclassify marijuana, stating, “(T)here is no substantial evidence that marijuana should be removed from Schedule 1.”

Despite federal statements to the contrary, Oliver stresses that much research exists to refute this position.

According to NORML, a 2017 review of more than 10,000 recent studies by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, indicated that ” ‘conclusive or substantial evidence’ exists in support of the clinical use of cannabis for the treatment of chronic pain and other conditions.”

Those conditions include everything from Alzheimer’s disease to Tourette syndrome, not to mention epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder and migraine headaches.

Oliver cites the U.S. National Library of Medicine, which reports that 535 studies are currently being conducted on cannabis across the nation.

“Federal legalization,” he said, “would allow (more) dollars to flow into research.”

And that might ultimately make the difference. After all, more research means more knowledge. It follows then that more knowledge, one can only hope, will result in better decisions regarding both the existing, and still undiscovered, ties between cannabis and health.

Dan Webster is a former Spokesman-Review staff writer who is a community producer for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for
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