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Marijuana research: Time to remove regulatory roadblocks

| Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, 4:48 p.m.
Marijuana plants are displayed at the Green Goat Family Farms stand at 'The State of Cannabis,' a California industry group meeting in Long Beach, Calif. (AP Photo)
Marijuana plants are displayed at the Green Goat Family Farms stand at 'The State of Cannabis,' a California industry group meeting in Long Beach, Calif. (AP Photo)

An epidemic of opioid abuse is ravaging the United States. Some see cannabis as part of the solution while others see it as part of the problem. This is just one area in which unbiased scientific research is necessary. But outdated federal legislation is blocking efforts to understand the real benefits and risks of the plant.

There are critical open questions about cannabis that matter in daily life. Let's look at three scenarios.

Your friend is one of the 1,125,000 people in California who use medical cannabis. He drinks a cannabis tea because it helps him go to sleep. The morning after, he has no aftereffects. One day, police stop him for a random blood THC test. He turns out to be THC positive and loses his driver's license, even though there is no correlation between blood THC levels and intoxication. We need research to develop objective ways of measuring cannabis intoxication or innocent people will pay for crimes they did not commit.

Let's say your grandfather is convinced cannabis is the only thing that helps him with his arthritis pain. He is not alone in believing this — cannabis use in people over 50 has tripled in the last 10 years. You notice Grandpa has become more forgetful than he used to be. Is this a normal consequence of age or a side effect of the drug? We can't answer this because the effects of cannabis have never been studied in elderly people. Research shows that in old mice, low doses of cannabis may actually improve memory — but what about in humans?

One last example takes us back to the opioid crisis. States in which cannabis is legal have 25 percent fewer deaths for opioid overdose than states in which medical use of the drug is not allowed. These are credible data but do not necessarily mean cannabis is a solution to the opioid crisis. We do not know if cannabis can replace opioids or if it worsens the risk of developing an opioid addiction.

Finding the answers to all of the above questions is more than feasible. Yet the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 (CSA) stands in the way.

Researchers may only use plant material from a single federal contractor, the University of Mississippi. That cannabis is different from the cannabis generally available to the public, which creates a problem of “external validity”: What researchers are allowed to study does not tell them much about what happens in the real world.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration must approve any use of the university's cannabis, a lengthy process that requires researchers to jump through unnecessary hoops.

The CSA is the single greatest impediment to increasing our knowledge of cannabis. It matters now because Proposition 64 (the Adult Use of Marijuana Act approved by California voters in November 2016) has taken effect and cannabis is legally available for recreational use in the most populous state in the union.

California's Bureau of Cannabis Control is putting sensible guidelines in place, but even the most thoughtful regulation cannot replace research. If science does not fill the knowledge void, then interest-driven pseudo-science will.

Proposition 64 calls for research on cannabis. It is essential that we implement this key component of the proposition and support the rigorous scientific work needed by medical providers, consumers, law enforcement and entrepreneurs alike.

Daniele Piomelli and Bob Solomon are directors of the UCI Center for the Study of Cannabis. They wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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