Could Changes to DEA’s Marijuana Regulations Impact Medical Research?

Key Takeaways:

  • The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is considering reclassifying marijuana from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule II drug, potentially benefiting medical research.
  • Schedule I drugs are perceived as having no medicinal application and a high potential for abuse, with marijuana currently listed amongst substances like heroin and LSD. Moving it to Schedule II recognizes some medicinal value, despite a high potential for abuse.
  • Marijuana could potentially offer benefits for reducing chronic pain and nausea, mitigating seizures, psychological benefits, and enhancing appetite, but definitive large-scale clinical trials haven’t been done due to marijuana’s DEA drug status.
  • If marijuana is rescheduled, the medical community expects research to focus on how marijuana components, like THC or cannabidiol, interact with the body to alleviate symptoms or disease, rather than increasing smoking for medicinal use.
  • The rescheduling of marijuana could lead to more standardized, FDA-approved quality products, which would be beneficial for medical practitioners and patients alike.

The degree of ambiguity with which most physicians approach medical marijuana is largely due to legal restrictions, which have crippled researchers’ attempts to clearly outline what cannabis does and doesn’t do for patients.

Nevertheless, this situation could soon transform. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is contemplating an adjustment to its classification of marijuana, which could lift numerous limitations on its use in the area of medical research.

DEA’s Reflection on Marijuana Classification

Should the adjustment occur, doctors may find solutions to the questions they frequently receive from patients about the clinical advantages of marijuana.

Dr. Robert Wergin, board chairman of the American Academy of Family Physicians, expresses his personal experience and anticipation: “As an active physician even in a rural area, I get asked about medical marijuana use, and I want to ensure I can give advice based on evidence,” he said.

According to recent communication from the DEA to Congress, the agency intends to decide this summer whether marijuana’s status should be reclassified from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule II drug.

Legal Implications of Drug Scheduling

Currently, the DEA categorizes Schedule I drugs as substances with no acceptable medical application and a high potential for abuse. Prominent drugs like heroin, LSD and ecstasy are listed with marijuana on the DEA’s Schedule I register.

In contrast, Schedule II drugs are also acknowledged to have a high potential for abuse, but they also display some medicinal value, explains Dr. J. Michael Bostwick, a psychiatry professor at the Mayo Clinic.

This potential change of regulations could have a significant impact on medical research concerning marijuana or cannabis in the United States, Bostwick noted.

Morphine, methamphetamine, cocaine and oxycodone, despite being potentially addictive substances, are all Schedule II drugs due to their medical applications.

The Clinical Benefits of Marijuana: A Growing Body of Research

Studies suggest that marijuana could be beneficial in reducing chronic pain and nausea, easing seizures, possibly reap psychological benefits, and even enhancing appetite. However, no large-scale, definitive clinical trials have been conducted to fully substantiate these claims, due to marijuana’s DEA drug status.

Legally, all marijuana used for research purposes in the United States is grown at the University of Mississippi. This institution has an exclusive contract with the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to supply the nation’s entire research stock.

Every year, NIDA sends marijuana deliveries to a select few researchers, who have to undergo a detailed registration process to get access to the cannabis.

The Medical Community’s Perspective

Voices within the American Medical Association (AMA) support loosening drug laws in order to facilitate a study of marijuana’s potential medical utility. The AMA has expressed that while cannabinoid-based prescription products show promise for a limited number of medical conditions, rigorous research needs to expand to a wider range of conditions.

The American Academy of Neurology, in a position paper from December 2014, commented on the lack of comprehensive marijuana research. Due to limiting drug laws, researchers could not discern whether medical marijuana could aid in treating neurological disorders like epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

The Future of Marijuana Research

Neither Wergin nor Bostwick believe that expanded research would necessarily lead to more people smoking pot for medicinal use. Rather, they suggest that research would likely focus on understanding how marijuana components like THC or cannabidiol, interact with the body to possibly alleviate symptoms or disease.

The eventual development of marijuana-based medications could be beneficial, without causing the high associated with marijuana, they propose.

Wergin sees the possible benefits of marijuana’s rescheduling and resulting research as twofold: greater clarity on marijuana’s benefits for patients; and increased confidence in prescribing marijuana-derived medications, knowing they’re regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In his opinion, the rescheduling of marijuana could lead to a more standardized, FDA-approved quality product.

However, Paul Armentano, deputy director of the marijuana legalization group NORML, suggested that a DEA reclassification still falls well short of the federal reform required to reflect the nation’s changing perception regarding cannabis use. Even with rescheduling, federal law would still require researchers to source marijuana from the University of Mississippi.

Further Information

For more information on drug scheduling, consider visiting the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

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