Lawmakers blocking medical marijuana legalization due to a lack of research, then blocking said research, is a cycle that continues to thrive throughout the U.S. political realm, even though the American public’s support for medical marijuana legalization is at an all-time high.
The latest block comes from Arizona State Sen. Kimberly Yee, a Republican, who refused to add to her Senate Education Committee agenda a piece of legislation with bipartisan support that would allocate funds garnered by the state’s medical marijuana program to fund research on marijuana’s medicinal benefits for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Yee argues that the state should only use the money for drug abuse prevention programs. She has also said that welfare recipients should not receive aid unless they pass a drug test.
The study Yee is single-handedly blocking is one that would specifically examine the safety and efficacy of smoked and vaporized marijuana for 50 U.S. veterans with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the University of Arizona Institutional Review Board approved the study, but the U.S. Public Health Service initially spent months not allowing the researchers to buy the marijuana they needed for the study.
Although the government has a supply of marijuana that has been specifically set aside for research purposes, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, require that extra review be given to those who are requesting to study marijuana and its effects — a mandate that is not required for any other drug, including those that, like marijuana, have been classified as a Schedule I substance such as MDMA, LSD or psilocybin.
Legally obtaining marijuana for research purposes from the U.S. federal government is a problem that the nonprofit organization the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, has struggled with for the past 22 years — even though the group wants to conduct a controlled study regarding the medical safety and efficacy of marijuana in the treatment of a variety of conditions.
The decision to study PTSD, especially among veterans, came about because medical marijuana legalization advocates have argued for years that the drug can be used to help persons suffering from PTSD-related symptoms such as haunting nightmares and sleeplessness.
Since the federal government’s block on this potentially groundbreaking research failed to generate much support from the public — in fact, it led to accusations that the federal government intentionally blocks research that could prove marijuana’s medicinal benefits — the feds agreed to supply the researchers with the drug. But now Yee is standing in the way of what could be life-saving research.
“Twenty-two veterans a day are killing themselves,” said Dr. Sue Sisley of the University of Arizona, who is also the principal investigator of the proposed study. “They’re not benefiting from conventional medicine. And while many are using marijuana to help them with this debilitating disorder, they want it to be legitimized. They want data. They want to know what doses to take. They want to be able to discuss this with their doctors.”
State Rep. Ethan Orr, also a Republican, who sponsored bill HB 2333, which passed the House in a 52-5 vote, encouraged Yee to support the legislation because it will help not only combat veterans, but also “people with chronic illness and pain who can’t find relief anywhere else.”
“Whether you are for recreational use or against it, we should at least know what marijuana does,” Orr said. “It’s research — that’s all we are trying to do.”
Politics before science
Arizona legalized medical marijuana in 2010. Under the state’s medical marijuana laws, funds generated by medical marijuana card sales can be allocated to a university in order to “conduct thorough, objective clinical research on the safety, efficacy and adverse events with marijuana.”
As per the requirements under the state’s Medical Marijuana Act, all of the funds supplied by the state would not be allocated to any out-of-state research, and HB 2333 would not raise taxes in the state, but would merely take funds already set aside to research a drug the state legalized.
“Our study paves the way for research that could make marijuana into a federally approved prescription medicine for PTSD,” said MAPS executive director Rick Doblin, Ph.D. “We worked for 22 years to get permission to purchase marijuana from NIDA’s monopoly supply. By refusing to consider HB 2333, Senator Yee is making it clear that she would prefer the research never to happen at all.”
Ricardo Pereyda, a Tucson, Ariz., resident and U.S. Army and Military Police Corps veteran who fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom 2, expressed his anger that Yee wouldn’t even allow the bill to be heard in her committee.
“Senator Yee is placing politics before science, and doing so at the expense of our combat veterans,” he said.”
“Being able to treat multiple symptoms from post-traumatic stress with cannabis has been instrumental in my ability to lead a full and productive life,” said Pereyda, who is also the Veterans Liaison for the Arizona chapter for the marijuana legalization advocacy group the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Since this research not only impacts veterans and those with PTSD living in Arizona, but around the United States and the world, Pereyda organized a rally in support of medical marijuana to be held on April 2 from 5-7 p.m. at the Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza in Phoenix.
During the rally, Pereyda is expected to ask Arizona State Senate President Andy Biggs to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote, thereby skirting Yee’s block. His decision has the support of many legalization advocacy groups, including the Arizona Cannabis Nurses Association, Americans for Safe Access, NORML and the Drug Policy Alliance.
“Our veterans put their lives on the line for this country, and now Senator Yee says that rather than pursuing every option to address the problems many of them face, we should instead force these proud soldiers into an illicit marketplace, and turn them into criminals for trying to make themselves whole,” said 36-year police veteran Lt. Tony Ryan (Ret), a board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials opposed to the war on drugs.
“It’s a shameful way to treat our veterans, and worse, will force many not to pursue treatment at all.”
No research, no marijuana, but no marijuana, no research
The sad reality with issues like blocking research and indirectly keeping medical marijuana patients from obtaining the medicine they need is that it’s far from unique to Arizona. Minnesota’s Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton recently shared that instead of pushing forward medical marijuana legislation in the state, he would like to see some research regarding marijuana’s medicinal benefits first.
It appears anecdotal evidence and scientific studies conducted outside of the U.S. just weren’t enough to convince Dayton to endorse or publicly pledge to sign the legislation.
But there are many problems with Gov. Dayton’s widely rejected proposal to delay medical marijuana legalization in the state, which includes funding a $2.2 million study at the Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic to specifically examine how marijuana’s non-psychoactive ingredient, cannabidiol, or CBD, can be used to help children with various forms of epilepsy.
For one, the federal government would have to approve the study, and just like MAPS, obtain DEA approval to receive some of the federal government’s marijuana supply. Second, the study only focuses on CBD oil — not varieties of marijuana strains that are high in THC, the drug’s psychoactive component which also has medicinal values. Third, the study only focuses on children with epilepsy, negating the millions of the state’s residents who suffer from conditions that could potentially be helped by the use of medical marijuana. And lastly, the study would cause a delay in sick people legally gaining access to a medicine they need now.
Even on a federal level, lawmakers such as Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) are pushing for the passage of legislation that would remove legal restrictions on all federal agencies from researching the drug so that one day marijuana could be legalized federally — at least for medicinal purposes.
Under the Reauthorization Act of 1998, the Office of National Drug Control Policy is currently not only prohibited from researching the medicinal benefits of marijuana, but the ONDCP director, also known as the drug czar, is tasked with ensuring that federal funds are not used to study the legalization of any Schedule I drug, even for medicinal reasons, and must oppose all attempts to legalize the substance.
“The ONDCP’s job should be to develop and recommend sane drug control policies, not be handcuffed or muzzled from telling the American people the truth,” Cohen said in February. “How can we trust what the Drug Czar says if the law already preordains its position? My bill would give the ONDCP the freedom to use science — not ideology — in its recommendations and give the American people a reason to trust what they are told.”