Colorado Poised To Be First State To Fund Marijuana Research

One medical marijuana advocate said it's ridiculous that the U.S. creates bombs that can kill a million people at once, but doctors can’t study a plant.
By @katierucke |
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    Closeup of THC-filled trichomes on a Cannabis sativa leaf. (Photo/Indirectantagonist via Wikimedia Commons)

    Closeup of THC-filled trichomes on a Cannabis sativa leaf. (Photo/Indirectantagonist via Wikimedia Commons)

    Come January, Colorado may make history again if the state legislature agrees with the Democratic governor’s decision to fund medical marijuana research in the state’s 2014 budget.

    Last week, Gov. John Hickenlooper allocated $7 million to universities, research hospitals, and foundations so they can study marijuana’s effect on a variety of medical conditions from epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder, to brain development in infants.

    If approved, the money would be split into grants ranging in value from $500,000 to $1 million.  But even if the budget passes the state legislature fairly quickly, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment likely won’t be able to issue any requests for research proposals until July 2014.

    “The impetus is that we have about $13 million in the Medical Marijuana [Program] Cash Fund, and it needs to be used for purposes that relate to the people who paid for their medical-marijuana cards,” said Henry Sobanet, director of the Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting. “And the impetus really was that now there appears to be ways where legitimate research can be conducted on the use of cannabis or marijuana for medical purposes.”

    Although numerous media outlets have been sharing medical marijuana success stories for years, the federal government continues to argue there hasn’t been any sound research – at least in the U.S. – to back up the anecdotal evidence of the substance’s benefits.

    In an interview with Mint Press earlier this year, Jason David, a medical marijuana legalization advocate whose son uses a form of the substance to help with his seizures, expressed his disgust with a lack of research in the U.S. and said that it doesn’t make sense that the U.S. is able to create bombs that kill a million people at once, but doctors can’t figure out a plant.

    Part of the reason there hasn’t been much research on medical marijuana is because the U.S. government has classified the substance as a Schedule I drug, meaning the federal government. does not recognize a valid use of marijuana at any time — even for medical purposes — and believes marijuana is highly addictive, has a high potential for abuse, and functions as a gateway drug. Other Schedule I substances include heroin and phencyclidine (PCP).

    In order to allow for more research on the drug, the government would have to move the substance to a lower classification, to indicate that the substance does have known health benefits and is not likely to be abused as much as other drugs.

    But the Catch-22 with declassifying marijuana is that the federal agency responsible for classifying drugs, the Drug Enforcement Administration, requires “real, FDA-approved research proving marijuana is medical, safe and non-addictive, and since the DEA won’t let that research happen, there is nothing forcing them to change the scheduling of cannabis.”


    DEA: Dangerous drugs don’t qualify for medical research

    Despite increased support for legalization, the DEA has continued to argue that marijuana is one of the worst drugs in the world, and based on the scheduling classification, the agency continues to believe the substance is more dangerous than methamphetamines, cocaine or anabolic steroids.

    In an article for High Times earlier this year, marijuana legalization advocate Russ Belville asked why the DEA continues to argue there is no scientific evidence proving the safety and effectiveness of medical marijuana when there are more than 19,000 published studies on cannabis’ medical benefits. Additionally, the federal government has patents on the medical effects of cannabinoids; there are four people in the U.S. receiving federally-grown medical marijuana as part of the federal medical marijuana program; 20 states have legalized medical marijuana; and millions in the U.S. are a “living testament to marijuana’s medical miracles.”

    In 2001, a medical marijuana advocacy group, Patients Out of Time, commissioned a study that included both physical and mental tests on the patients in the Compassionate Use Investigational New Drug Program (IND), which is the federal medical marijuana program.

    The patients were put through pulmonary, respiratory and immune system tests at Missoula University in Montana, and according to Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the pro-pot advocacy group the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), what researchers found was that other than developing phlegm, which St. Pierre says is not “a great surprise when smoking vegetable matter,” the IND patients were fine.

    Under current law, in order for a U.S.-scientist to study marijuana’s medical benefits, the researcher would need to obtain a DEA license and have their study approved by the FDA. And in order to obtain research-grade marijuana, the researcher would need to go through the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

    But many researchers have reported numerous struggles when attempting to obtain approval from the NIDA, since the agency’s mission is to research harmful effects of controlled substances and stop drug abuse. In other words helping researchers discover medicinal benefits of marijuana is not in their best interest.

    Brad Burge is the director of communications for the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Research (MAPS), an organization currently embroiled in a lawsuit with the DEA over the right to establish a medical marijuana farm. He said that “Marijuana is a linchpin in the War on Drugs,” and added “There’s a lot of investment in marijuana remaining illegal.”

    Each year the U.S. spends about $40 billion fighting the war on drugs, even though no one has ever died from consuming or smoking too much marijuana, and more than 2,000 people are arrested per day on minor marijuana-related charges.

    Burge added that “the U.S. government has gone to great lengths to prevent [medical] research on whole-plant marijuana,” however research into isolated components of the plant has been allowed.


    Legalization advocates: Research needed to save lives

    Brian Vicente is the executive director of the marijuana advocacy group Sensible Colorado and a co-author of Amendment 64, the legislation which legalized recreational use of marijuana in 2012. He said that a benefit of medical marijuana research is that more medical conditions may be recognized as a condition that could be helped by medical marijuana.

    Vicente gave the example of PTSD, and said that while marijuana has been anecdotally found to help with symptoms of the psychological condition, the condition is not recognized as a medical condition that qualifies a person as a medical marijuana patient in several states, including Colorado. He said he has tried to add PTSD to the state’s list of cannabis-treatable ailments twice in the past three years, but his efforts have been rejected every time.

    Robert Melamede, a professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, agreed with Vicente that medical marijuana research may make it more difficult for the state’s Board of Health to reject ailments that could potentially be helped by marijuana. He added that “our existing policies are literally killing veterans,” and said he found it “incredibly offensive” that although veterans are killing themselves every 60 or 90 minutes, the state won’t allow them to try using medical marijuana.

    Since Melamede runs an infused-product company called Cannabis Science, he says he plans to apply for a grant to launch a PTSD-related study.

    In a report, the Colorado Springs Independent newspaper said that other research organizations in the state have been relatively mum this far on whether or not they would apply for a grant to study medical marijuana. The research center of the University of Colorado Health program, for example, said they don’t plan on conducting a medical marijuana study until the money is available.

    Although there is a risk that the money won’t be made available, Sobanet says that the state believes now is the time for “legitimate research.”

    “It’s interesting, and I think we’ve seen these stories about people moving here, with the oil and the epilepsy,” he said. “So yeah, I think if this works, it seems exciting that there could be treatments that come from a plant.

    “[And] this is more on a personal note: These stories are fairly heartwarming — they appear to be providing a lot of relief. So, I think, for scientists that investigate these treatments, it’s an exciting opportunity.”

    Although the state government officials appear to be onboard with the research as of now, it is not known yet how the federal government will respond to the funding of medical marijuana research in the state. In September, the Justice Department promised not to sue Colorado for legalizing recreational use of marijuana, so long as the state implemented a well-regulated system that respected the federal Controlled Substances Act. It is not known yet if the DOJ will view this attempt to fund research as a violation of that agreement.

    Even if the U.S. continues to block medical marijuana research, the substance continues to be studied in several other nations. Although marijuana is banned in the Czech Republic, a nation with one of the highest usage rates of the drug, researchers in the European nation have examined the drug’s therapeutic uses since 1954. In fact, it was a Czech citizen, professor Jan Kabelik, who created the world’s first cannabis laboratory, and two other Czech researchers were the first to isolate cannabinoids in the plant.


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