Feds Finally Approve Research on the Therapeutic Value of the Whole Marijuana Plant

While stacks of independent research have affirmed the extraordinary medicinal potentials of the cannabis plant, none received the official approval of the U.S. government. But, soon we could be looking at the first federally-sanctioned research to take place on marijuana in 40 years, outside of limited research by government organizations. Marking a historic shift in U.S. drug policy, the Public Health Service (PHS) just approved the protocols for a study of cannabis’ effects on 12 treatment-resistant combat veterans with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). The study's protocols were already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) three years ago. They were also approved by the University of Arizona Institutional Review Board (IRB), and the University of Arizona has agreed to play host with psychiatrist and MD Sue Sisley as principal investigator.

PHS approval is huge because marijuana has more restrictions than any other illicit substance in the country. The fed still lists it as a Schedule I substance—meaning a substance with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). And, as required by a 1999 guideline, marijuana is the only Schedule I substance that requires an extra approval by the PHS, on top of FDA approval, before it can be studied. This makes pot the most difficult substance in the U.S. to research under federal law.

AlterNet ran an article in February about the nonprofit research organization MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), which sponsored the PTSD study, and their 14-year struggle trying to purchase marijuana for research approved by the federal government. In that article, AlterNet noted that an average of 22 veterans commit suicide every day in the U.S. according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“This is a dire need, understanding PTSD, not just for combat vets but for all our citizens who are plagued by this,” Sue Sisley said in the February article. “Any physician who’s also a human being can’t rest when we know that there’s something out there, in this case a plant, that has the potential to reduce human suffering.”

Thousands of veterans swear by marijuana’s unique ability to reduce PTSD symptoms and say it is much more effective than any pharmaceutical drug they’re prescribed. But, while many vets are calling for increased access to marijuana medicine, the study in question would be the first-ever controlled, clinical study to look at using marijuana to treat PTSD in human patients.

While the PHS approval overcomes an enormous hurdle, MAPS still needs the DEA to sign off before it can purchase research-grade marijuana from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)—which has a DEA-protected monopoly on the only legal supply of cannabis for use in FDA-regulated research. Then, the first government-approved, non-government study of marijuana in four decades can begin.


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