On Thursday, President Joe Biden made three pretty surprising statements regarding marijuana reform. Dank Brandon announced a pardon of all prior federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana, which affects 6,500 people convicted between 1992 and 2021, as well as those convicted in the District of Columbia. He also urged all governors to do the same at the state level.
In the third part of his announcement, Biden said he would ask the secretary of Health and Human Services and the attorney general to review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law. This would have implications for federal policy and the cannabis industry—as well as our very understanding of marijuana as a substance.
Marijuana is defined as anything from a cannabis plant that has more than 0.3 percent of the psychoactive compound THC. (Anything below that is defined as hemp and legal under the Agriculture Improvement Act.) It’s currently classified as a Schedule 1 drug, alongside other compounds such as LSD and heroin. It’s a pretty big deal that the president would even consider changing marijuana’s status. It’s also a perfectly sensible move: Marijuana is currently classified as more dangerous than fentanyl and methamphetamine, the president explained. While weed can have some negative side effects, those other compounds can be deadly.
What’s more, weed both holds promise as a medicinal compound and is subject to a huge amount of hype. “One of my concerns as a citizen and a researcher is all of the claims that are being made about the medical effects of cannabis and cannabis products,” explains R. Lorraine Collins, the director of the University at Buffalo’s Center for Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research. “Right now it’s being presented as a panacea for hundreds of disorders, and we have no or very little data about many if not most of those conditions.” In particular, scientists I spoke to emphasized there are many claims about THC’s potential ability to treat brain injury or cancer, but research is limited.
Getting data on how weed does—or does not—help various conditions can be incredibly challenging. Weed’s Schedule 1 classification doesn’t just make it harder for the average person to acquire marijuana. It makes it tough for researchers to use it with study subjects as well.
“When I sit down to write a grant or when I start to brainstorm about really interesting scientific ideas, I know at this point I cannot think about what would be the highest impact study from a public health perspective,” explains Ziva Cooper, the director of the UCLA Center for Cannabis and Cannabinoids. “I first have to think about what study drug I can get my hands on that the Food and Drug Administration would approve me giving to people, and how I can mold a study around what is actually available.”
Researchers like Cooper have to jump through a number of hoops before they start administering cannabis to humans. (Getting approval for animal studies is a bit easier, but those studies can only tell us so much.) Collins has been conducting cannabis research since the mid ’90s, and explained that the obstacles to getting approval to use cannabis in human trials haven’t changed since then.
As with any study on humans, researchers must get Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval. However, researchers looking to work on cannabis must also get a Schedule 1 license from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and demonstrate that they will be taking care of the substance adequately.
“We then have to show the DEA that we’re going to store this incredibly dangerous product in a very safe way,” says Margaret Haney, the director of Columbia University’s Cannabis Research Laboratory. (Haney made clear that she means “incredibly dangerous” sarcastically.)“I have an extremely heavy safe in a room I get into with a fingerprint and a code.” Haney noted it’s easier to do research with cocaine than with marijuana—as a Schedule 2 drug, cocaine is not as heavily regulated.
Outfitting a lab with all these necessary components to conduct cannabis studies isn’t cheap.
“Most scientists, the vast majority, don’t have the money or facilities to do this kind of research,” says Haney. “This leaves us with a society in which we’re not getting the key answer to the question: What is the plant or its components useful for?”
Researchers must also get approval from the FDA. States have their own rules, too. In New York, where both Collins and Haney work, researchers must also have a license from the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement. In California, where Cooper operates, study protocols must also be approved by the attorney general’s office.
All weed used in research has to be vetted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and before last year, there was only one approved source. Although it makes sense that weed used in scientific research is heavily regulated and tested, this means it usually doesn’t match the cannabis that’s available in retail or medicinal outlets. Collins points out that there’s often a disconnect between potencies of products, making it trickier to fully understand how the drug affects individuals (though Haney noted that you can make up for the lack of potency by amping up the dosage).
As weed becomes more widely available, it’s particularly important to understand how it affects everyday activities like driving.
“All sorts of statements are being made, but we really don’t have enough research to understand the effects of different dosages of cannabis on motor activity, cognitive activity when driving, reaction time,” Collins said. “All of the parameters of driving need to be examined at different levels of cannabis use.”
It’s not exactly clear what the review of weed’s status that Biden is calling for could lead to for weed research. While Cooper is optimistic that things are heading in the right direction, she was a bit skeptical of what the review process entails and its implications. She thinks that the drug could be rescheduled to a Schedule 2 or even just removed from the controlled substance act completely, like alcohol and tobacco, which would make it easier to study. But she pointed out that even countries where weed is federally legal—like Canada—still struggle to conduct robust research on weed.
Right now, with weed’s current classification, there’s also the question of funding. Although researchers can receive funding to study weed, its status as a drug with a high potential for abuse creates a bit of a catch-22.
“The FDA is not going to grant you a Schedule 1 registration unless you have a reason to study this drug,” Cooper explained. “And the only way you’re going to have a reason to study this drug is essentially if you have funding to study this drug.” This makes it difficult for newer researchers to get into the field. “If you’re a new researcher in the field and you’re submitting this great idea for study, the reviewers may say ‘She doesn’t have a schedule I license? How is she going to be able to do this?’ ”
And new researchers in the field doesn’t necessarily mean that they are new to all research—researchers in other scientific disciplines may also want to use marijuana, but don’t want to go through all the extensive lengths to get it. The intersection between cannabis research and the medical field is especially lacking.
Bringing together the different disciplines would increase the state of knowledge with respect to marijuana’s potential adverse and therapeutic effects. I guess you could say it would be a joint effort.
Correction, Oct. 12, 2022: This article originally misstated that Ziva Cooper is the director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative. She is actually the director of the UCLA Center for Cannabis and Cannabinoids.
Update, Oct. 13, 2022: This piece has been updated to emphasize that Haney does not think weed is actually ‘incredibly dangerous.’