clock menu more-arrow no yes

The feds just made it a lot easier to research marijuana

David McNew/Getty Images
  1. The federal government removed a substantial barrier to conducting scientific and medical research on marijuana.
  2. The government previously required three major approvals for marijuana research not funded by the government: a Food and Drug Administration review, a Public Health Service (PHS) review, and approval from the Drug Enforcement Administration. Marijuana is the only schedule 1 drug that had to go through the special PHS review.
  3. The federal government's decision, which is effective immediately, eliminates the PHS review, which in some cases added months or years to a study's approval.

There are still substantial barriers to marijuana research

medical marijuana

Shutterstock

The DEA classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, the strictest possible classification, which means the federal government considers marijuana to have no medical value and some potential for abuse. The classification, along with other restrictions, has made it difficult to carry out even the most basic research on pot — with studies sometimes taking months or years longer than they would if pot weren't so strictly regulated. And the hurdles, in turn, make it more difficult for the government to ease restrictions on marijuana, since it didn't have a scientific basis to do so.

Marijuana's schedule alone means research requires special approval from the FDA and DEA. These reviews are enforced even on studies that aren't funded by the government.

But the government in 1999 added another step — the PHS review — for marijuana research in particular. This was seen as a big barrier — and deterrent — to such studies, and the elimination of the PHS review could get pot research going a lot more easily and quickly.

Still, advocates argue that the government could take additional steps to ease marijuana research. It could, for example, reschedule pot to a schedule 2 substance, which would acknowledge the drug's medicinal properties and potentially ease the FDA and DEA's scrutiny of proposed marijuana research.

The government's schedule of pot has, strangely enough, made it more difficult to reschedule the drug. To find medical value in a drug, the feds typically require large-scale clinical trials. But these trials can take much longer to get approved because the DEA, FDA, and previously the Department of Health and Human Services — through the PHS review — are so restrictive about what marijuana can be used for.

So marijuana's regulatory status was and still is a bit of a Catch-22: there needs to be a certain level of scientific research that proves marijuana has medical value, but the federal government's restrictions make it difficult to conduct that research. The decision to eliminate the PHS review removes one hurdle, but there are still a couple of barriers left for researchers to go through.

(h/t: Kevin Sabet.)