Scientists must obtain hard-to-get license from DEA in order to conduct research
It used to be a wild weed of unknown ancestry, grown surreptitiously in the rural fields of Latin America and smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border. But Americans, without knowing what was in the drug or its effects on the brain and the rest of the body, still consumed it with abandon.
Today, two years after recreational marijuana became almost as easy for California adults to buy as Snickers bars — and a quarter-century after voters decided to make the Golden State the first to legalize medical marijuana — cannabis is big business. It’s grown under meticulous conditions, heavily taxed and highly regulated.
Yet, scientists say, in many ways it remains a mysterious drug.
Researchers are anxious to learn more about marijuana’s genetic and chemical makeup, its medical benefits and the public health risks associated with increased use of the drug. But a maze of often contradictory federal and state regulations limits how researchers can put the plant under a microscope.
The scientists’ biggest challenge is this: Cannabis is not only illegal under federal law, it’s also classified as a “Schedule I substance,” meaning that the U.S. government equates it with heroin and other hard drugs that federal officials say have a high potential for abuse and no “currently accepted” medical uses. That means that unless scientists apply and receive a hard-to-get license from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to do cannabis research, they are severely restricted.
“The federal system seems set up to have cannabis researchers fail,” said Jahan Marcu, co-founder of the New York-based International Research Center on Cannabis and Mental Health. “But consumers want a product that’s safe, labeled correctly and, maybe someday, even covered by insurance.”
Interest in cannabis research has soared as the number of users steadily increases, mainly as a result of states loosening their marijuana laws. Since the mid-’90s, 33 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medicinal marijuana. Eleven states and D.C. now allow recreational cannabis sales. And roughly 20 other states are poised to take up the issue this year either through legislation or at the ballot box.
At universities that receive federal funding, anything that involves handling cannabis requires a license from the DEA. The application, Marcu said, is extremely difficult to complete, and it often takes several years for the government to approve it. As a result, most scientists teaching or researching cannabis today are forced to rely on textbooks, online resources and expert-led webinars.
Even California’s small private laboratories that aren’t federally funded are still prohibited from doing some types of marijuana research. Under the federal rules, for example, the private labs can handle the marijuana sold at California dispensaries, but can’t administer any cannabis to a human or animal.
“The lack of information is astounding for a new marketplace,” said John Yoder, a professor of plant science at UC Davis who teaches students about cannabis without a DEA license. “It’s easier for me to get a license to make methamphetamine than to grow cannabis.”
Agricultural scientists say one reason more cannabis research is so badly needed is that modern horticultural techniques have created a plant far different from the way weed grows in the wild. Selective breeding, researchers note, has boosted levels of molecules that influence the plant’s taste, smell and psychoactive properties.
Yoder noted that when cannabis was illegal across the U.S., it was often grown in pots so that it could be easily moved. And, he added, it was grown as big as possible to yield the most product.
“The result is a plant shaped like a Christmas tree,” Yoder said.
A more efficient way to grow weed, he said, would be to cultivate shorter plants that are covered entirely with buds — “like a little rosebush.” With agricultural science, Yoder said, the time it takes to grow marijuana can be reduced and its adverse effects on the environment — including a heavy reliance on water and pesticides — can be lessened.
“There’s a huge number of opportunities as soon as plant scientists can get their hands on this plant,” Yoder said.
In Washington, the House Judiciary Committee in November voted overwhelmingly to approve a bill that would take marijuana off the Schedule 1 list, and the Democratic-controlled House is expected to pass the measure this year. But it would face an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled Senate.
A spokesman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which works with the DEA in enforcing cannabis laws and rules, declined to comment for this story but pointed to the FDA’s 2016 denial of a petition to remove cannabis from the worst-drugs list: “The drug’s chemistry is not known and reproducible; there are no adequate safety studies; there are no adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy; the drug is not accepted by qualified experts; and the scientific evidence is not widely available.”
The medicinal properties of cannabis have been fiercely debated for decades. Some scientists say the plant and its derivatives can be used to treat ailments ranging from cancer and epilepsy to toe fungus, while others argue that it can lead to a loss of mental acuity and even psychosis.
“There are so many healing benefits with cannabis — it can alleviate PTSD symptoms, chronic pain, seizures, migraines and more, but everyone’s body is different,” said Jeremy Freitas, a U.S. Air Force veteran from Napa County who co-founded the Veterans Cannabis Group in 2016 to help vets who use medicinal marijuana. And “we want to know where it’s coming from and that it’s without pesticides or heavy metals.”
At UC San Diego’s School of Medicine, the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research receives $2 million in annual funding from California’s Proposition 64, the 2016 ballot initiative that legalized recreational marijuana. And because the center has a DEA license, it has received roughly $7 million in federal grants from the National Institutes of Health since the center was founded two decades ago. In 2017, the NIH funded $140 million in cannabis research in the U.S. — or about 0.4% of its $39 billion annual budget for medical research.
The center’s co-director, Thomas Marcotte, is now experimenting with marijuana with various levels of THC — the crystalline compound in the cannabis plant that gives users their high — to treat lower back pain caused by nerve damage. Some participants are receiving cannabis, while others get a placebo that looks and tastes like marijuana. The patients and the scientists involved don’t know who is getting the real thing.
“It’s a challenge to do research with a psychoactive substance” because the studies rely on subjective feedback from participants about how they’re affected by marijuana, Marcotte said. By conducting research this way — in what’s known as a “double-blind” experiment — Marcotte is hoping to minimize participants and researchers from seeing and feeling what they want to see and feel.
While the center is at the forefront of clinical-style cannabis research, its federally funded research still comes with restrictive guidelines. The center, for instance, can only use cannabis grown by the lone federally licensed dispensary, located at the University of Mississippi.
The marijuana provided by Uncle Sam, Marcotte said, is effective in that some patients experience relief from various forms of chronic pain. “But it doesn’t compare to the varieties and products currently available at state-level dispensaries,” he said. As a result, Marcotte said, he can’t say whether the government-approved cannabis is more or less effective than what’s available legally in California because it isn’t legal for the center to study the marijuana sold in dispensaries.
“There are so many questions to be answered, but right now it’s hard to do that research because of the federal prohibition,” Marcotte said.
The private labs, in contrast, don’t receive federal funding and have thus operated with fewer restrictions in California since medicinal marijuana became legal under state law following the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996.
Jeff Raber, chief executive officer of The Werc Shop laboratories in Los Angeles, has been studying the chemistry of cannabis and its effect on the body for almost a decade.
In 2011, Raber and his team were among the first to begin testing cannabis samples for terpenes – organic compounds produced by a large variety of plants. Terpenes give lemons their zesty scent and purple kush, a strain of cannabis, its pine and peppery smell.
Raber and fellow scientists are discovering that terpenes are linked to other things about marijuana, including how relaxing or uplifting of an effect you get.
That’s the kind of information that guides consumers when they’re deciding which weed to pick at Soquel’s Treehouse dispensary, where “budtenders” are educated about terpenes, said Bryce Berryessa, the dispensary’s owner. And having solid research data about cannabis, he added, also makes it easier to help customers with sleep problems, anxiety, seizures, headaches and other ailments.
“Two years of recreational cannabis in California has brought about a new type of consumer,” Berryessa said. “People are more knowledgeable and want a better understanding of what it is they’re consuming.”