Huge scientific study refutes the federal government’s stance on marijuana


“It just reinforces what our policy makers should already know.”

Different types of marijuana are displayed at Sparc Dispensary Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in San Francisco. CREDIT: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

In the federal drug classification scheme, marijuana is classed at the very top. It is considered to be a Schedule I substance — a category reserved for drugs with a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.

For years, however, scientists have done study after study showing that this classification is misguided. On Thursday, the National Institute of Science put one more nail in the coffin with one of the most thorough reviews of the research to date: a massive, 396-page report on 10,000 research studies on marijuana, assessing therapeutic benefits and risk factors.

The study, conducted by a panel of experts led by Harvard public health researcher Marie McCormack, is broken out into 100 different conclusions — many of which are just assessments of the current state of the research.

“Given that our federal government still considers it Schedule I, which means there are no accepted medical benefits…this is a pretty clear refutation of that.”

It is particularly significant, however, that the review states quite clearly that there is “conclusive or substantial evidence” that marijuana is effective for the treatment of chronic pain, as a tonic for nausea and vomiting in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, and in treating spasticity in multiple sclerosis patients.

“Given that our federal government still considers it Schedule I, which means there are no accepted medical benefits…this is a pretty clear refutation of that,” Taylor West, the deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, told ThinkProgress.

Marijuana has also been floated as a potential treatment for a whole host of other disorders — such as easing insomnia relating to painful syndromes, increasing appetite in people with HIV/AIDS, decreasing severe anxiety, and combating the effects of PTSD. Although there’s moderate to limited evidence supporting marijuana’s effectiveness, the report found, the research here isn’t yet conclusive.

The study also looked at the health risks associated with marijuana use, dispelling some popular arguments against it. For example, according to the study’s review, smoking marijuana is not associated with the same cancer risks as tobacco — there was no evidence that marijuana use was associated with lung, head, and neck cancers. Tobacco, unlike marijuana, is recreationally legal nationwide.

New Study Makes A Serious Public Health Case For Medical Marijuana

That doesn’t mean, however, that marijuana is completely absolved of health risks. Researchers did find an association between marijuana use and schizophrenia and some other psychoses, though they cautioned it wasn’t clear whether marijuana use contributed to the psychoses or whether people developing psychoses were turning to marijuana as a form of self-medication. Smoking marijuana may cause respiratory distress, though it’s likely to disappear after use stops. Like alcohol, using marijuana before driving contributes to car accidents.

“It just reinforces what our policy makers should already know,” said West. “This is a product with significantly lower risk factors than other things that we regulate and consume, like alcohol.”

Another big takeaway from the report was its assessment on the current state of marijuana research — which is, there’s not enough of it. Because of its Schedule I status, it’s simply too hard for researchers to study.

“It is often difficult for researchers to gain access to the quantity, quality, and type of cannabis product necessary to address specific research questions on the health effects of cannabis use,” the authors conclude.

Meanwhile, marijuana is the most commonly used illicit substance in the U.S., and more than half of states in the country allow some form of medical marijuana. Eight states and the District of Columbia allow recreational use. Yet while state-by-state it’s becoming more accepted and common, researchers are still hamstrung by the scientifically-outdated federal classification.

“It’s frankly immoral that we continue to make it so difficult to do research into marijuana.”

As a result, unlike substances like alcohol or tobacco which, although they pose risks, have been studied and regulated, “no accepted standards exist to help guide individuals as they make choices regarding the issues of if, when, where, and how to use cannabis safely and, in regard to therapeutic uses, effectively,” the study’s authors warn.

That’s a state of affairs that ought to concern both pro and anti marijuana lawmakers and advocates.

“It’s frankly immoral that we continue to make it so difficult to do research into marijuana,” said West.

This latest study is just one more piece of evidence that marijuana’s federal status deserves to be reexamined — a move that would be quite popular among the American public. According to a national poll conducted in June, 89 percent of Americans support medical marijuana, and 54 percent support full legalization.

Under Jeff Sessions, drug legalization and sentencing reforms will go up in smoke

As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take over the White House, attention has recently been focused on the incoming administration’s stance on marijuana. While Trump professed support of medical marijuana and said he would leave the issue up to the states on the campaign trail, his nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) as the next attorney general has alarmed marijuana advocates. Sessions, in remarks on Capitol Hill, has made it clear he is not in support of marijuana legalization.

West, however, said that too much focus on the White House may miss the mark: “It’s important to make sure that members of Congress are paying attention to this too.”

“Congress has the power to change this law. We know the majority of Americans support it. Plus, now we have yet another piece of evidence supporting marijuana’s therapeutic benefits. Really, it’s a matter of members of Congress listening to their constituents,” he said.

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