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As attitudes and laws about marijuana change across the country, an interesting and somewhat disturbing problem is beginning to emerge.

Despite the fact that 23 states have legalized cannabis for medicinal use due to its widespread and well-known health benefits, the federal government still has not changed its legal classification from a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. Although the White House did recently lift one of the barriers to cannabis research, it is still officially viewed as a product with no medical value. This has made it difficult for scientists to get permission to study it intensively as a medicine, leaving gaping holes in the research.

A comprehensive analysis of the research that is available to date was released in the recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. It states that medical cannabis has not been proven to work for many of the conditions states have approved it for, despite the fact that most studies analyzed did show an improvement in symptoms. Those positive results were not deemed statistically significant, however, as authors state they could not be certain the improvement was not due to chance alone. Reviewers cite the lack of high-quality studies as a likely reason for the finding.

The lack of scientific data also means that the Food and Drug Administration has no basis for recommending and regulating cannabis, allowing for some profit-driven manufacturers to mislabel products and mislead patients.

Another article in the same issue of JAMA states that labels on edible marijuana products often list inaccurate amounts and types of cannabinoids. Ryan Vandrey, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, states:

“When I have a health condition, and need to go buy my medicine, I want to make sure I know what I’m getting. What we saw was that there can’t be much if any consumer confidence within the cities we purchased and tested products.”

Professor Vandrey and his team evaluated 75 products from nearly 50 dispensaries in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle and found that only 17 percent of them were labeled correctly. Twenty-three percent contained more of the cannabinoids than were listed on the product, and 60 percent had less than the label described. Vandrey adds that if legislators believe their states will benefit from allowing the use of marijuana, and they are going to forge ahead with legalization, they should also ultimately be the ones to take charge of regulation.

Researchers remain optimistic about the future of medical marijuana. Colorado has awarded more than $8 million to scientists such as Vandrey to begin several studies, including one that will look at marijuana’s effect on the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans.

Vandrey confidently states:

“We’ll start to get a good science base.”

The Department of Health and Human Services has also posted notice that they will no longer require research proposals to undergo a federal Public Health Service review before being approved. This streamlines the process for researchers, as the FDA already requires all the same elements to be reviewed. Hopefully, these and other measures will soon allow scientists to study marijuana as a medicine and not only help the federal government change its classification, but also help millions of Americans in the process.

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