But how much does cannabis research matter if the federal government isn’t listening?

By Paul Armentano

During the past decade, largely due to the discovery of the endogenous cannabinoid system, there has been an unprecedented explosion in cannabis research – and, consequently, a seismic shift in our understanding of the relative safety and therapeutic efficacy of the cannabis plant.


Despite the US government’s almost century-long prohibition, cannabis remains one of the most thoroughly investigated therapeutic substances in history. There are more than 20,000 published studies and reviews in the scientific literature pertaining to the cannabis plant or its constituents, nearly one-third of which were published within the past three years. According to a keyword search on PubMed Central, the US government’s repository for peer-reviewed scientific research, that total includes more than 2,700 separate papers published in 2009, another 1,950 papers published in 2010 and 2,550 in 2011.


We possess a greater understanding of the cannabis plant, its chemical components and the ways in which those components interact with living organisms than we do for most other therapeutic substances that humans put into their bodies. Why? Because cannabis has been so rigorously studied – particularly at the preclinical level. Furthermore, we have substantial empirical data gathered from several thousand years of human experience.


Ironically, despite the decades of federal obstinacy in this area, that also includes data from many FDA-approved, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials – the so-called gold standard of clinical research. At various California universities, investigators have recently conducted more than a half-dozen trials involving more than 200 subjects. The results of this research include the following: that inhaled cannabis can be a “first-line” defense in the treatment of chronic neuropathy; that cannabis acts synergistically with opiate-based medications, likely leading to a reduction in the required doses of conventional pharmaceuticals; and that cannabis “provides benefits beyond currently prescribed treatments” for patients with multiple sclerosis.


On the international scene, a recent Canadian trial concluded that a single inhalation of herbal cannabis repeated three times daily significantly improved sleep and reduced suffering in patients experiencing chronic pain. A 2011 observational study from Israel found that subjects with Crohn’s disease required far fewer hospitalizations and surgeries on average in the years immediately following their therapeutic use of cannabis than in the years prior to it. And a recent Spanish study found that cannabis use was associated with reduced pain and stiffness – as well as an increased feeling of well-being – in patients with fibromyalgia.


Yet in the context of US policy, this research may as well have never happened, since federal officials steadfastly refuse to reschedule cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act or amend public policy in a manner consistent with the science. In fact, in July of 2011, the Obama administration summarily dismissed a petition to reconsider the federal government’s ridiculous classification of cannabis as a dangerous and highly addictive substance with no medical use whatsoever, disingenuously arguing that “there are no adequate and well-controlled studies proving [its] efficacy.”


Federal policymakers have also shown themselves determined to ignore the results of the various gold-standard trials conducted in conjunction with the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the University of California’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research and even the Drug Enforcement Administration. This federal silence is telling, since it reinforces the (by now obvious) fact that the United States continues to uphold a public policy that is neither based on nor guided by science.


In fact, just the opposite is true: This policy is actively hostile toward science. And despite President Barack Obama’s well-publicized memo in 2009 to the heads of all executive branch agencies – which boldly proclaimed in its opening sentence: “Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health” – the reality is that the federal government’s approach to cannabis won’t be changing anytime soon. In fact, the most recent National Drug Control Strategy report acknowledged that there are currently only 14 researchers in the entire US who are legally permitted to work with whole-plant cannabis in clinical trial settings.


So the question for reformers is this: If 20,000-plus peer-reviewed studies of the cannabis plant, coupled with thousands of years of empirical observations, haven’t sufficiently influenced public policy in the US, why would another one or two studies – or two dozen or even 200 – finally do it? In short, what good is more scientific research if nobody in the federal government is willing to acknowledge the results?


The problem facing advocates today isn’t that we lack the objective scientific evidence needed to craft a rational public policy on cannabis and its many potential health benefits. The problem instead is that our existing public policy remains 180 degrees removed from where the science now tells us it should be.


So how do we change that? For starters, by educating public-policy leaders on the existing research – which overwhelmingly confirms that cannabis is sufficiently safe and effective – and by rejecting the notion that we as a society “just don’t know enough” about its health effects.


Because we already know plenty. And, most of all, we know there is no valid scientific reason to justify the continued targeting, prosecution and incarceration of Americans who consume cannabis responsibly.