Despite a law legalizing medical marijuana research in state universities on Friday, researchers say they doubt they’ll be able to conduct studies anytime soon.
Because the National Institute on Drug Abuse is the only agency federally approved to grow marijuana and sell it for research purposes, according to Dr. Sue Sisley, clinical faculty at the UA College of Medicine in Phoenix and principal investigator on a Food and Drug Administration-approved marijuana study, it is unclear if the research will ever happen.
“That bill — even though it was a huge victory, it’s a huge symbolic victory because it only takes us about five percent of the way,” Sisley said.
Sisley plans to research the effects of medical marijuana on 50 combat veterans suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Her study was approved three years ago, and is the only one in Arizona approved by the FDA.
“There are two huge barriers to doing marijuana research: the non-existent funding to support it and the problems of what we call the ‘NIDA monopoly,‘” Sisley said.
NIDA’s website says that not enough clinical trials exist to prove that the benefits of medical marijuana outweigh the risks.
“There’s not any independent research done to any sort of scientific standard that verifies that it’s going to be useful to PTSD,” said Colby Bower, chief legislative liaison for the Arizona Department of Health. “I would imagine that any sort of study coming out of a university like the UA would be good research.”
Sisley said NIDA will only provide marijuana to studies about the harmful side effects or abuse potential of marijuana, not to studies of its positive qualities.
“You don’t get rejected outright, but put into a permanent review process,” Sisley said. “They keep you at bay that way. The only one who wins by these delays is the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration]. Patients lose, society loses, because they don’t get answers to questions they have.”
Anthony Daykin, chief of police in the University of Arizona Police Department, said he does not anticipate any issues for the UA stemming from the research. He said he believes studies on marijuana will be the same as any other study on campus, and that the university is the best place for that research to be conducted.
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said that he believes if radioactive isotopes are studied on campus, it is self-evident that beneficial plant material should also be studied on campus.
“Scientific research, when unfettered and unbiased, almost inherently always comes out in favor of more human interaction with cannabis than for less of it,” St. Pierre said.
St. Pierre said the reason the federal government is so opposed to medical marijuana research is because it has difficulty admitting it was wrong and needs to change. He said that research will severely undercut what has come to be known as “The Big Lie,” or propaganda against marijuana, describing what the government wanted people to believe about it.
Sisley said she doubts she will ever be able to conduct her research without interference. She wants to answer questions about how marijuana works, how it is best dosed and absorbed and what hybrid strains work best with what medical conditions. However, she believes the government will keep blocking her research, she said.
“The government has already decided the fate of marijuana,” Sisley said. “They decided that, in their heads, marijuana has no medical benefit. That’s why they put it as a Schedule I drug. People in law enforcement – the DEA – for some reason they’re allowed to make a decision about the medical properties of this plant. The DEA should have no business defining what class drugs are placed in.”
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