In an announcement that was published in the Federal Register on the 23rd of July, 2015, the White House, through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), announced a new set of guidelines for medical marijuana research. Specifically, the new guidance eliminates the Public Health Service (PHS) review of non-federally funded research protocols with regard to medical marijuana, speeding up the process of marijuana research. With this policy, prospective researchers can utilize the existing Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Investigational New Drug (IND) process for drug development, which is less cumbersome than earlier requirements. The new policy is a revision to a previous guidance published by the HHS in 1999, which delineated the procedures for medical marijuana research currently in effect. The former guidance put a lot of hurdles in place which researchers had to overcome before they could legally carry out studies on marijuana.
While not a huge step towards the legalization of medical marijuana, this elimination of bureaucratic bottlenecks will make it easier for researchers to investigate the medicinal properties of cannabis plants, which will likely positively influence the movement to legalization medical marijuana. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which is the category for drugs described by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as dangerous, and with no currently accepted medicinal value. Removing the difficult steps towards obtaining permits for marijuana research will enable more scientists to have access to the plant or grow their own medical marijuana for research purposes. The establishment of scientifically backed medicinal properties may influence the government to remove marijuana from its current listing as a Schedule I drug.
A bipartisan group, made up of members of Congress, drafted a letter in May of 2014, calling on the Secretary of Health and Human Services to remove the barrier to legitimate medical marijuana research by eliminating the PHS review. Marijuana is the only drug within its category which the DEA prohibits from being scientifically studied in private labs, unlike other Schedule I drugs such as heroin and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).
Scientists interested in obtaining research-grade marijuana for research have to go through the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which many researchers find cumbersome and frustrating. Obtaining DEA-licensed marijuana for FDA-regulated scientific research is still an uphill task due to the monopoly exerted by the NIDA. Given the current interest in the therapeutic potential of medical marijuana, there has been a renewal by marijuana advocates in pushing for more research into the medicinal benefits of medical marijuana. Allowing more marijuana research will lead to more scientific studies that can be evaluated by the FDA for authenticity.
As of July 2015, 23 states and Washington D.C. have legalized the use of medical cannabis due to the various perceived benefits. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), THC, the active compound in marijuana, has been found to provide relief for those who have nausea from cancer chemotherapy, and for use in stimulating appetite in those who have HIV/AIDS. Marijuana also contains another class of active compound called cannabidiol (CBD), which is useful for managing several conditions, including epilepsy and migraines. THC is a psychoactive agent, meaning that it is capable of altering the mood, perception or consciousness of people who use marijuana. This is unlike CBD, which possesses none of the psychoactive properties of THC, and can actually counter the psychoactive effects of THC. The psychoactive properties of THC makes it appealing as a relaxant and sleep aid, while cannabis rich in CBD may be an option for those seeking a solution for inflammation, anxiety, pain and other ailments, without the lethargy associated with THC.