Removal of marijuana research barrier could lead to big business benefits down the road

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cannabis studies

By Tony C. Dreibus

The Obama administration’s decision to eliminate a regulatory hurdle for medical cannabis studies might help spur new research that could lead to a reclassification of marijuana at the federal level, which would be a game-changer for the industry.

The Department of Health and Human Services is expected to publish a notice today saying it will end a required Public Health Service review of non-federally funded research involving medical marijuana.

Officials concluded that the review is nearly identical to one already required by the Food and Drug Administration, making it redundant.

While not a watershed move in and of itself, the development could be the first domino to fall when it comes to cannabis research, leading to a further relaxation of requirements at the federal level and an increased number of studies into the medical value of marijuana, experts said.

“The research is coming and it’s going to be more unbiased and more useful than it has been in the past,” said Aari Ruben, the owner of Desert Bloom Re-Leaf Center in Tucson, Arizona. “This isn’t the Holy Grail for medical marijuana research. This isn’t going to by itself drastically change things but it’s a small shift in the right direction.”

If new studies find that marijuana is beneficial, support would likely grow to change marijuana’s current classification as a Schedule I drug, which under federal definition means it has no medicinal value.

A rescheduling of marijuana would allow banks to more easily do business with cannabis companies, make it less difficult for businesses to expand geographically and lower the risk of federal prosecution.

“It would allow interstate commerce in the space, facilitate research (and) improve the business environment – for example banking, taxes, credit card processing and lending,” Ruben said. It also, however, may allow “big industries – alcohol, tobacco and big pharma – to come in and possibly take over.”

Several big hurdles remain on the research front, though.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has sole control over the nation’s supply of medical marijuana for research, which also must end before any meaningful studies can be done, said Suzanne Sisley, a doctor and noted medical marijuana researcher.

The government currently allows only one marijuana production facility – in Mississippi – to provide all cannabis used by U.S. researchers. Scientists who want to study the positive medical benefits of cannabis are often left without marijuana for studies because NIDA is focused on the negative impacts.

Allowing researchers to obtain marijuana from other producers would go a long way in furthering research, Sisley said.

“The next and even more crucial reform is ending the (NIDA) monopoly on DEA-licensed marijuana that can be used in FDA-regulated research,” said Sisley, who is also the medical director at dispensary White Mountain Health Center in Sun City, Arizona.

“Once there are privately-funded, DEA-licensed medical marijuana producers, then the question of the medical use of marijuana will be evaluated by the FDA based on scientific data, the same as with all other drugs.”

Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said now that the PHS review has been done away with, NIDA’s hold on marijuana for research should be eliminated.

A hearing will be held regarding medical marijuana-related research on Wednesday in the U.S. Senate, he said.

“We expect there will be some tough questions about NIDA’s monopoly,” said Riffle, who praised the White House for adhering to policies that are based in science rather than politics.

Schedule I drugs, as defined by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, are those that have no medical use, are unsafe to use even under medical supervision and have a high potential for abuse. Along with marijuana, heroin, ecstasy and peyote are Schedule I drugs.

By that definition, marijuana shouldn’t be considered in the same tier as the others, said Tom Angell, the chairman of advocacy group Marijuana Majority. The next step that should be taken, he said, is to reschedule cannabis.

“Given what the president and surgeon general have already said publicly about marijuana’s relative harms and medical uses, it’s completely inappropriate for it to remain in a schedule that’s supposed to be reserved for substances with a high potential for abuse and no therapeutic value,” he said. “Hopefully today’s action is a sign of more to come.”

Tony C. Dreibus can be reached at