Time Magazine – The Great Pot Experiment
Time Magazine’s May 25, 2015 issue explores the “encouraging, troubling, and strangely divided world of marijuana science.”
Legalization keeps rolling ahead. But because of years of government roadblocks on research, we don’t know nearly enough about the dangers of marijuana—or the benefits.
Welcome to the encouraging, troubling and strangely divided frontier of marijuana science. The most common illicit drug on the planet and one of the fastest-growing industries in America, pot remains–surprisingly–something of a medical mystery, thanks in part to decades of obstruction and misinformation by the federal government. Potentially groundbreaking studies on the drug’s healing powers are being done to find treatments for conditions like epilepsy, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, sickle-cell disease and multiple sclerosis. But there are also new discoveries about the drug’s impact on recreational users.
Video: Inside the World of Medical Marijuana For Kids
As states now rush to legalize pot and unwind a massive criminalization effort, the federal government is trying to play catch-up on the science, with mixed success. The only federal marijuana farm, at the University of Mississippi, has recently expanded production with a $69 million grant in March, and Volkow has expressed a new openness to studies of marijuana’s healing potential. In the coming months, Uncle Sam will begin a 10-year, $300 million study with thousands of adolescents to track the harm that marijuana, alcohol and other drugs do to the developing brain. High-tech imaging will allow researchers for the first time to map the effects of marijuana on the brain as humans age.
But scientists and others point out that a shift to fund the real science of pot still has a long way to go. The legacy of the war on drugs haunts the medical establishment, and federal rules still put onerous restrictions on the labs around the country that seek to work with marijuana, which remains classified among the most dangerous and least valuable drugs. “We can do studies on cocaine and morphine without a problem, because they are Schedule II,” explains Fair Vassoler, a researcher at Tufts University who has replicated Hurd’s rat experiment with synthetic pot. “But marijuana is Schedule I.”
That means that under the law, marijuana has “no medical benefit,” even though 23 states have legalized pot as medicine and NIDA acknowledges that “recent animal studies have shown that marijuana can kill certain cancer cells and reduce the size of others.” And marijuana researchers face barriers even higher than those faced by scientists studying other Schedule I drugs, like heroin and LSD. Pot studies must pass intensive review by the U.S. Public Health Service, a process that has delayed and thwarted much research for more than 15 years. The result is sometimes a catch-22 for scientists seeking to understand the drug. “The government’s research restrictions are so severe that it’s difficult to find and show the medical benefit,” says neurobiologist R. Douglas Fields, the chief of the nervous-system-development section at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
That all may change soon. On Capitol Hill, a left-right coalition of Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Cory Booker of New Jersey introduced a bill in March to federally legalize medical marijuana in states that have already approved it. “For far too long,” said Paul, a Republican candidate for President, “the government has enforced unnecessary laws that have restricted the ability of the medical community to determine the medicinal value of marijuana.”