Normally, a particular drug or therapeutic approach that might provide significant relief from a disease as potentially deadly as HIV/AIDS is great news — and a signal to the medical research community that more studies are needed.
Unless, of course, the promising drug turns out to be THC, the infamously euphoric and stigmatized cannabinoid in marijuana that has shown such amazing medical efficacy for literally dozens of different diseases and conditions.
Schedule I Barrier
Because of its Schedule I status under the Controlled Substances Act, which is the federal government’s way of labeling it completely void of medical benefit, cannabis does not qualify for research studies like other, Schedule II and lower, drugs.
This makes the work of researchers like Dr. Patricia Molina even more ironic. Dr. Molina conducted a 17-month study of rhesus monkeys, all of which were SIV-positive (a condition in monkeys that is very similar to HIV in humans). Some of the monkeys were treated with a high concentration of THC, while a control group was not.
The study revealed that the monkeys treated with THC had significantly stronger immune systems than those that were deprived of the cannabinoid.
It has been found that HIV will first attack the gut and intestines of a sufferer. This allows the virus to diminish the immune system of the gastrointestinal tract to the point that it can permeate cells to directly enter the bloodstream and fully infect its victim.
Human Trials a Necessity
In other words, Dr. Molina’s work has demonstrated great promise for the THC cannabinoid in the treatment and prevention of a disease that has killed more than half a million Americans. However, without human testing, therapy involving THC will obviously never make its way into mainstream medicine.
Why aren’t human trials being planned? Simply because of the Schedule I status of cannabis in the United States. Regardless of the promise of research on creatures like rats and monkeys, as long as cannabis remains a Schedule I drug, most viable research will occur outside the United States.
Another major problem plaguing cannabis due to its Schedule I status is a lack of funding. A single organization within the U.S. government, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), administers all cannabis research and related grants. As long as Schedule I status is attached to marijuana, organizations like NIDA are legally bound to regard the herb as holding no hope as a medicine.
Several efforts are under way to reclassify cannabis as Schedule II. The CARERS Act, bi-partisan legislation sponsored by Senators Cory Booker, Rand Paul, and Kirsten Gillibrand (among others), seeks to, among other things, recognize the ability of states to legalize cannabis without interference and to transfer the plant to Schedule II.
This minor technical difference is one of the only things standing between ample research and the funding necessary to make it a reality. Until cannabis is rescheduled via legislation like the CARERS Act, research efforts like the SIV study conducted by Dr. Molina will continue to show promise to which thousands of legitimate research institutions will be powerless to respond with their own human trials.
This post was originally published on June 5, 2015, it was updated on October 5, 2017.