Marijuana Legalization: Scientists Want More Access to Pot For Research, and Most Millennials Agree

ByWilliam Smith

One stance that millenials are characterized by is our strong support for the legalization of (at least) medical marijuana: A recent Pew poll found that 65% of millenials support legalization of marijuana. But it isn’t just young adults who want the government to increase access to marijuana; medical researchers are adding their voices to the “improved access” cause.

Scientists have made advancements in studying the potential medical uses of the chemical components of marijuana, but due to the drug’s criminality, such research is difficult. As a result, researchers have called for improved access. Most recently, David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, explains that the supposed dangers of (marijuana and other drugs) have been exaggerated, and that "The laws have never been updated despite scientific advances and growing evidence that many of these drugs are relatively safe.”

Marijuana, or more specifically, cannabis, is classified by the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 as a Schedule I drug; this category consists of drugs which meet one or more of the following criteria: The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse; the drug or has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States; and there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.

Marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I drug is quite dubious. First, marijuana is not physically addictive, and “abuse” is interpreted by the FDA to mean using a drug to feel pleasure, even if doing so is safe. Second, though there is still some degree of uncertainty, there is a plethora of anecdotal evidence and academic research supporting marijuana’s ability to treat symptoms of a number of maladies. Third, marijuana is known to be a relatively safe drug; there are no examples of fatal marijuana overdoses, and the side effects are mild. Furthermore, while technically considered a different, Schedule III drug, Marinol (a synthetic version of THC), is a prescription drug used to fight nausea and improve appetite (though it is supposedly not as effective as smoked marijuana).

Despite the large amount of evidence showing marijuana to be a medically beneficial drug, the federal government has refused to reschedule the drug. This is partly due to the extremely restrictive rescheduling process. In order for a drug to be rescheduled, it must receive approval from the FDA first, which will not happen until enough of the “proper” research is done. The National Institute on Drug Abuse maintains a monopoly on the supply of legal cannabis for research purposes. In order for a researcher to gain access to this supply, they must first be granted approval by the Department of Health and Human Services, then register and be approved by the DEA. The supply of legal weed is quite small, being grown at only one facility and at a weaker potency than what is widely available on the streets.

The DEA has its own requirements for rescheduling. In 1992, DEA Administrator Robert Bonner developed a list of five criteria to determine whether a drug has any medical benefits: The drug's chemistry is known and reproducible; there are adequate safety studies; there are adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy; the drug is accepted by qualified experts; the scientific evidence is widely available.

By strictly limiting the supply of legal, research-friendly weed, the NIDA can ensure that the scientific evidence never becomes “widely available” enough to pass muster with the DEA. That said, perhaps enough popular and medical support for general relaxing of marijuana laws, along with the results of what few studies are done, will persuade the relevant agencies to take steps to increase access.

Marijuana is unlikely to be a panacea, but there is already enough evidence to show that thousands of people will suffer needlessly as long as marijuana, and research into its therapeutic properties, is so tightly restricted.