Medical Marijuana Research Hits Wall of U.S. Law
By SERGE F. KOVALESKIAUG. 9, 2014
Above: Suman Chandra checking marijuana plants at a federal marijuana facility at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Credit Lance Murphey for The New York Times
Nearly four years ago, Dr. Sue Sisley, a psychiatrist at the University of Arizona, sought federal approval to study marijuana’s effectiveness in treating military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. She had no idea how difficult it would be.
The proposal, which has the support of veterans groups, was hung up at several regulatory stages, requiring the research’s private sponsor to resubmit multiple times. After the proposed study received final approval in March from federal health officials, the lone federal supplier of research marijuana said it did not have the strains the study needed and would have to grow more — potentially delaying the project until at least early next year.
Then, in June, the university fired Dr. Sisley, later citing funding and reorganization issues. But Dr. Sisley is convinced the real reason was her outspoken support for marijuana research.
“They could never get comfortable with the idea of this controversial, high-profile research happening on campus,” she said.
Dr. Sue Sisley said the University of Arizona had fired her because of her outspoken support for marijuana research. Credit Laura Segall for The New York Times
Dr. Sisley’s case is an extreme example of the obstacles and frustrations scientists face in trying to study the medical uses of marijuana. Dating back to 1999, the Department of Health and Human Services has indicated it does not see much potential for developing marijuana in smoked form into an approved prescription drug. In guidelines issued that year for research on medical marijuana, the agency quoted from an accompanying report that stated, “If there is any future for marijuana as a medicine, it lies in its isolated components, the cannabinoids and their synthetic derivatives.”
Scientists say this position has had a chilling effect on marijuana research.
Though more than one million people are thought to use the drug to treat ailments ranging from cancer to seizures to hepatitis C and chronic pain, there are few rigorous studies showing whether the drug is a fruitful treatment for those or any other conditions.
A major reason is this: The federal government categorizes marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, the most restrictive of five groups established by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Drugs in this category — including heroin, LSD, peyote and Ecstasy — are considered to have no accepted medical use in the United States and a high potential for abuse, and are subject to tight restrictions on scientific study.