In a move that could mark a watershed for research into the benefits of marijuana, the federal government has approved a study of whether weed helps veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Though PTSD is only one condition among many that weed may benefit, the green light from the Obama administration could change everything for those who want to study pot. For the first time, the government has signaled a shifting attitude toward cannabis research.
Until now, that research has been essentially impossible. That’s because an agency known as the National Institute on Drug Abuse controls access to the government’s marijuana farm in Mississippi, the only sanctioned source of weed for research.
That agency exists to combat drug use, so it has long stopped any investigation of marijuana’s benefits. Only anti-drug research has been allowed.
That two-faced policy – scientific research placed in the hands of an agency that opposes scientific research – has left researchers in the United States with no practical way to study weed’s effects. And without that investigation, political leaders have no information on which to base rational decisions.
“This is a great day,” said Suzanne A. Sisley, the Arizona researcher behind the study and clinical assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. “The merits of a rigorous scientific trial have finally trumped politics.”
Sisley said she had tried for three years to get the OK to start her study at the university. It was approved by the Food and Drug Administration but stalled at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“We never relented,” she said. “But most other scientists have chosen not to even apply. The process is so onerous. With the implementation of this study and the data generated, this could lead to other crucial research projects.”
Government officials said they haven’t changed policy – Sisley just met the burden they impose for studying illegal drugs. In a letter, a review panel told her she had made “significant changes” that merited approval.
News of the decision drew praise from marijuana proponents, who said it was a sign of the changing times.
“The politics are shifting,” said Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a California organization that raises money for studies such as Sisley’s.
More than 80 percent of Americans support medical weed, yet even in states where it’s legal, research is largely out of reach. Some small-scale studies have been done, but serious, controlled research has been impossible.
For that reason, it has fallen mostly to Israel and a handful of other countries to examine pot’s medical qualities. American scientists and political reformers have pleaded with the government for years to end the embargo.
“You have an impossible burden,” said U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, who has joined other members of congress in pressing Obama to make pot more accessible to scientists. “These are not people who are going to be involved with some clandestine production of the drug or do something nefarious. They are trying to do scientific research that will add to the body of knowledge and safety.”