In an unprecedented move, federal researchers visited a medical cannabis farm in Vancouver, Washington to gauge the health impacts of working in the industry and performing tasks such as cultivation and processing. Does the repetitive motion of trimming marijuana flowers promote carpal tunnel? Are those processing dozens of pounds of freshly harvested cannabis, over the long term, in danger of inhaling plant particles that may be harmful to their health?
These are the questions that researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) are trying to answer by making observations and gathering data in a real world facility. They recently spent the majority of a week in carefully controlled observations on a working cannabis farm outside of Vancouver in an effort to gather metrics.
This is a highly ironic and even perplexing research study. Simply put: Because cannabis remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, the federal government officially regards it as completely lacking medical benefit and being a highly addictive and dangerous drug, as much so as heroin. Even all forms of cocaine and methamphetamines are less-restricted Schedule II drugs that can be prescribed by a doctor.
This study is especially ironic given the refusal of government bodies, such as Congress, to allow even minimal research at the federal level. Last summer, Congress voted not to allow cannabis research, especially that focused on CBD efficacy for conditions like epilepsy and cancer, to be orchestrated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and conducted by the National Institutes of Health outside of D.C.
This scientific investigation involved a team of four researchers descending on a pot farm owned by Tom Lauerman, also known as Farmer Tom to locals and customers, that lies just east of Vancouver. Their overall goal is to develop federal best practices and standards for workers in the cannabis industry. Again, a highly ironic and even confusing move for any group that’s officially part of the federal government. Until this farm visit, the team had never set foot on an actual, working commercial cannabis cultivation facility. The infamous University of Mississippi pot farm was the closest any of the researchers had officially come to a real world cultivation and processing operation.
Lauerman told reporters how he never imagined that his farm might someday be occupied by friendly employees of the federal government. He told local media:
“I never thought in my life that, by the time I’m 55 in the year 2015, we would have federal agents welcome onto my farm — like asking to come onto my farm — and get to educate them about cannabis. It simply just blows my mind.”
Researchers, who were not permitted to be identified by the media, outfitted cultivation and harvest workers with special sensors designed to do things like analyze air quality inside grow facilities. They even leveraged a high-tech glove (photos below) right out of science fiction that featured sensors that measured the activity of trimmers manicuring freshly harvested cannabis flowers.
What about the conflicting messages being sent by the feds to those in the cannabis industry and consumers of their products across the country? NIOSH claims that its research effort in no way conflicts with federal law simply because the researchers are analyzing working conditions, not the substance or product being produced. Because the activities of the cannabis farm are in full compliance with Washington State law, NIOSH — and apparently other government watchdogs — find no problem with the study or the researcher’s presence on the cannabis farm.
There were limitations, however. NIOSH researchers, for example, were prohibited under federal laws from touching or handling cannabis or cannabis products in any way. Results of the study won’t be released for at least a year (probably government speak for two to three). The cannabis industry and legalization movement should eagerly await and support the results of such studies to properly regulate and manage a burgeoning industry that promises to produce tens of billions in economic growth for a nation that has suffered a jobless recovery, severe underemployment, and a withering middle class for nearly a decade.
The White Hat Feds
Unlike the DEA and many Justice Department officials when dealing with individuals or companies in legal states like Washington, the NIOSH researchers were welcomed with open arms and conducted themselves professionally and with the best interests of cannabis industry workers in mind.
It should also be pointed out that the government researchers didn’t simply demand access to Lauerman’s farm or otherwise bully their way onto his property; they were invited. And who invited then? Lauerman. He said he wanted to ensure the eventual adoption by the industry of workplace protections for cannabis workers. Said Lauerman:
“Nobody has any idea what makes a safe workplace, it’s a new industry. I’m honored to have [the NIOSH] here.”
Will the DEA Step In?
Will the DEA try to squelch future research efforts by other government organizations, regardless of the legality? Normalization and acceptance of the plant, for any reason, including hardcore medical applications, are seriously frowned upon by the DEA, an organization that is beginning to see its budget reduced while progressive members of Congress call for its continued defunding and even dismantlement.
Cannabis activists and advocates can only hope that further cooperation between any faction of the federal government and the cannabis industry will occur in an effort to research and regulate what is becoming a multi-billion industry touching tens of millions of consumers and tax payers. Huge markets are being created in single states. The green rush is partially based on what might be accomplished by a majority of states declaring full legalization—let alone the anticipated eventual federal legalization that will inevitably occur after Luddites of Congress have retired and been replaced by more progressive colleagues.
To learn the results of this study, curious cannabis consumers must remain patient. For those who have suffered under the legal paranoia of prohibition and the uncertainty and frustration of black markets — especially those who are sick — patience has always been the modus operandi anyway.
Congress took very little time to kill an amendment that would have permitted limited federal research into the medical efficacy of cannabis. The effort was apparently killed by the House Judiciary Committee, which is led by Virginia Republican Robert Goodlatte.
It can easily be argued that nothing significant was lost in the demise of this amendment, however. Research permitted by the legislation would have been limited to that conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under guidance from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) — somewhat akin to allowing the fox to run the hen house.
In addition, the regulations for the proposed new Schedule IR (the “R” indicating research), under which marijuana would have been re-classified if the amendment had passed, would have been written by the DEA. Even more disturbing is the fact that one of the amendment’s sponsors, Maryland Republican Andy Harris, a physician, sponsored the legislation based on his belief that the research would prove marijuana is dangerous and lacks medical benefits.
Harris is the same politician who crafted legislation intended to block the District of Columbia’s recreational legalization. Because D.C.’s law was passed as a ballot initiative (winning 65 percent of the vote), Harris is directly defying the will of the District’s voters — and they aren’t even his constituents.
The bi-partisan legislation was sponsored by two Democrats and two Republicans. Morgan Griffith, the other Republican behind the amendment, was hopeful that the bill would pass and that the medical merits of marijuana would be proven through hard clinical research. Said Griffith after the legislation was killed:
“Andy Harris doesn’t think the research will show anything positive, but I do, and both of us feel willing to take the risk, do the research, and let us use evidence to make decisions. This amendment would have answered the question one way or the other. I think it would have shown it is a valuable medical substance, but now we don’t have the evidence.”
While cannabis research of any type is welcome to a vibrant medical marijuana community and a burgeoning recreational industry, clinical studies conducted by the NIH and DEA would likely have been very limited, may have taken years to get started, may not have involved human subjects, and likely would have used relatively low-quality cannabis from the University of Mississippi farm (meaning the resulting efficacy for test subjects may have also been unrealistically low).
Conservatives and prohibitionists are doing their best to kill off efforts to simply research cannabis to determine if it is objectively beneficial as a medicine. Bills like the bi-partisan CARERS Act, which would reclassify marijuana as Schedule II under the Controlled Substances Act, would allow for robust research. Given the short life of the Schedule IR amendment, efforts like CARERS may be in for a bumpy ride.
The unwillingness of Congress to reschedule cannabis to allow any type of research could be interpreted as a conservative effort to prevent favorable research findings from proving the efficacy of the herb. Despite relatively rapid progress resulting in 23 states with legal medical programs in place and Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia having legalized recreational use, the full legalization of cannabis in the United States will be far from easy.
Unfortunately, given the power and money of conservative forces that oppose legalization and the culture of marijuana, national legalization that allows all citizens to possess and consume marijuana is in no way guaranteed.
Photo credit: parameter.sk
Is the end in sight for the gross lack of clinical research regarding medical marijuana in the United States, including human trials, that’s been enabled by the federal government’s Schedule I status of the herb? The short answer: Maybe.
An amendment proposal has been made in Congress for a bill intended to accelerate development of new medicines. If passed, this bill would include creation of a new section of the Controlled Substances Act called Schedule IR. Any drug falling under Schedule IR would necessarily be cannabis, because the category is intended to “facilitate credible research on the medical efficacy of marihuana.”
According to the language of the amendment (note the spelling of “marijuana” as marihuana):
“The National Institutes of Health should initiate credible research on the medical efficacy of marihuana, including cannabidiol, as a treatment for patients.”
The amendment calls for the National Institutes of Health and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to work together to study the pros and cons of the use of cannabis as medicine. This bi-partisan legislation is sponsored by California Democrat Sam Farr, Maryland Republican Andy Harris, Virginia Republican Morgan Griffith, and Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer.
Republican Harris is a unusual sponsor for the bill; he led an unsuccessful efforts to block Washington, D.C. from implementing marijuana legalization. His opposition to the District’s legalization was especially controversial and attracted harsh criticism based on the fact that D.C.’s law was passed by a ballot initiative and, thus, directly reflected the will of the voters. It is possible that Harris is hoping research resulting from the amendment might uncover health risks or other fuel for the war on drugs.
This legislation cites the need for research at the federal level due to the legalization of medical marijuana in nearly half of U.S. states.
“As some States have begun to allow patients suffering from diseases such as cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to be treated with marihuana, it is imperative that the NIH, in consultation with the Drug Enforcement Administration, study the benefits and risks of marihuana and its derivatives and whether they are safe and effective forms of treatment for patients.”
If passed, the actual effect of this legislation is unknown. It cannot be assumed that the rescheduling of cannabis, strictly for research purposes and as directed by the federal government, will result in more open research and possibly human trials in the U.S. In fact, the regulations surrounding the new Schedule IR drug category would be written after passage of the law.
And guess who would be writing them? The DEA.
It should be noted that Schedule IR would apply strictly to marijuana research, not sales or any activity regarding recreational applications of the herb. For all uses of marijuana outside of research, the United States government and the attorney general would continue to apply the draconian regulations of Schedule I to their enforcement strategies and activities.
According to the language of the proposed amendment, Schedule IR would be a subset of Schedule I, with the “R” denoting the research focus of this new designation. According to the language of the bill:
“Except to the extent to which marihuana is intended to be used exclusively for research…shall treat marihuana in such Schedule IR as a Schedule I controlled substance.”
Between maintaining the Schedule I status of cannabis for all uses unrelated to research and the fact that the regulations for Schedule IR would be crafted by the DEA, this legislation leaves cannabis patients and advocates with little to celebrate. This bill’s passage would probably result in limited research, most or all of which was conducted by the NIH — and closely regulated and monitored by the DEA. There are also no guarantees of human trials.
Until the passage of bi-partisan bills like the CARERS act — which would re-categorize marijuana as Schedule II — objective, robust research in the United States will largely be a fantasy. Countries such as Italy, Israel, Germany, Spain, Canada, and the United Kingdom will continue to conduct the bulk of clinical studies and human trials involving cannabis.
Cannabis has been legalized for medicinal use in over half of the United States, and as of November, four states and one district have legalized recreational use for adults. This would make sense as to why half of the people in the United States have admitted to trying marijuana at least once. However, very little research has been compiled on the long-term impacts marijuana use has on the human brain due to difficulty gaining research access because marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act.
Now, thanks to a $275,000 grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health, a team at Indiana University will begin studying this topic, and working to close this educational gap.
The study will be conducted by clinical psychologist and Indiana University professor, Brian O’Donnell (pictured left) and Sharlene Newman (pictured right), who is also a professor and the the director of the university’s brain imaging facility.
The team is currently seeking to recruit 90 participants between the ages of 18 and 35. The study will require a control group, so people who have never used marijuana will also be needed for this study. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines will be used to view and compare differences in brain structure, connectivity and function between those who have used marijuana and those who have not. To protect the integrity of studying the impacts of only marijuana use on the brain, all participants must pass a drug screening to weed out anyone using other drugs like cocaine or alcohol. The subjects must also pass a series of cognitive skills tests prior to final selection.
The study is recruiting research participants at this time, and anticipates beginning the research as soon as all participant spots are filled. The announcement of this study comes at the same time that Senator Karen Tillian released a statement that she will introduce a medical marijuana legalization bill as soon as the legislature reconvenes in 2015. At this time, any use of cannabis is illegal in the state of Indiana.
photo credit: Mike Jackson