White House Lifts Restrictions On Marijuana Research

More information about its medicinal properties may be on the horizon

Marijuana.
Credit: Mark via Flickr, CC by 2.0

Marijuana may be one of the most popular drugs in the world, but marijuana is notoriously difficult to research, particularly in the United States. Access to cannabis plants for research is tightly controlled, the official supply is extremely limited, and tons of bureaucratic red tape means that studies are often delayed by years. But tomorrow, the White House will announce an updated policy for marijuana research, making it easier for scientists to access the plant and better understand how it can be used for medicinal purposes.

People have been using marijuana in one capacity or another for thousands of years, and yet scientists don't know that much about it. That's because, since 1999, the government has had an extra regulatory hoop for researchers to jump through — coincidentally, just as interest and funding was falling into place. Because of how marijuana was classified by the government (as a Schedule 1 drug, the "most dangerous" kind), studies about it would have to go through an additional Public Health Service review. Drugs classified this way, including heroin and ecstasy, are subject to abuse and are considered by the government to be difficult to use safely, even in a medical capacity. So regulators wanted to ensure that any study on these drugs was being done for the right reasons: To improve people's lives, and without too much risk. Many studies intending to show that marijuana could have positive effects on certain conditions were often rejected; even those that were approved would be delayed by years.

But in recent years, people have started to think of marijuana a bit differently. Now the White House is trying to speed-up marijuana research by removing one major source of red tape: removing the Public Health Service review requirement for marijuana research not paid for by the government. Though this announcement claims that the restriction is being lifted after several government organizations (including the National Institutes of Health) determined that the current process is redundant, other reports claim that the shift is due to a change in political climate. In light of several states legalizing marijuana, the federal government can't deny that Americans overall are more likely now to accept pot, both for medicinal and recreational uses.

Researchers have had only the inklings of the good things that pot can do, from fighting cancer to decreasing the effects of PTSD, but they haven't been able to explore it deeply or even assess its impact on health in the long term. With fewer restrictions on what they can investigate, some of their questions may be answered more quickly, which could mean better treatments for a slew of medical conditions.