While pot advocates were disappointed by the federal government’s decision to keep marijuana classified as a dangerous drug with no medical use, there is potential research-related benefit in Thursday’s news for Washington.
While pot advocates were disappointed by the federal government’s decision to keep marijuana classified as a dangerous drug with no medical use, there are potential benefits in Thursday’s news for Washington.
Although the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced it wasn’t changing pot’s standing as a controlled substance, it did loosen restrictions that could benefit local researchers.
Specifically, the DEA ended the University of Mississippi’s federal monopoly on growing pot for research.
Reclassifying marijuana would have had little impact on the broader cannabis community and Washington’s legal market, said John Hudak of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. But breaking the UMiss monopoly could prove more meaningful, he said.
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“Washington and Colorado are better prepared to grow research-grade marijuana than any other states,” he said. “To me, it’s a no-brainer because then Washington cannabis is the type of product recognized in gold-standard research worldwide.”
That could be an intellectual and financial boon to the University of Washington and other institutions, he said.
“It could increase our ability to do research on both recreational and medical marijuana,” said Dennis Donovan, director of the UW’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.
Researchers have criticized the UMiss marijuana over slow delivery, and lack of diverse strains and new products in the market, such as extracts. Some researchers had to tailor their studies to products available from the monopoly, Hudak said.
Beatriz Carlini, a senior research scientist at the UW institute, said UMiss pot was of lower potency than Washington’s weed and came as rolled joints, which is just one form of consumption.
There’s no guarantee Washington would gain from the monopoly’s end. It would have to win federal approval to grow or conduct certain studies.
But Donovan sees the possibility of the UW’s gaining federal licenses for the kind of randomized tightly controlled medical trials that could inform later federal decisions about the value of medical marijuana. “I see this as a first step,” he said.
Carlini is not as optimistic. “It is a change in the right direction, but not enough, not even close to enough,” she said.
In part, that’s because some researchers perceive a historical bias by the federal government to fund studies into the harms of pot but not its benefits.
There is no federal edict that bars studies of pot’s medical benefits, Hudak said. And he noted that groups such as the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics have asked for “more research, period.”
Jessica Tonani, CEO of a Seattle biotech firm interested in cannabis research, said some researchers will jump through the hurdles to work on a Schedule I drug. But she believes universities will still be deterred by marijuana’s standing on par with heroin.
From a private-company perspective, she said, the “landscape looks exactly the same as it did yesterday.”
Washington lawmakers passed a law earlier this year that paves the way for in-state research divorced from the federal government.
The problem had been that our legalization law allowed pot to be grown only for sale in licensed stores. The new law allows licensed growing for research. Rules remain to be written for its implementation.
The DEA’s announcement reinforces that private companies have to step up in states with legal marijuana, Tonani said, to “address the health and safety questions around the use of the plant.”