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The Need to Study Weed

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The head of the federal government's medical research agency told C-SPAN recently that cannabis' status as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act prevents scientists from researching its effects.

"Frankly, we know far too little about the benefits and risks of smoked marijuana," said Francis Collins, who was appointed director of the National Institutes of Health by President Obama in 2009 and re-appointed by President Trump in 2017. "There have been very few studies that have actually rigorously tested that."

While Collins intones that there would be a lot of value in starting to conduct in-depth studies into the substance Americans have been smoking and ingesting for at least a century, he stops well short of calling on Congress to change the drug's status or waive restrictions. But he did discuss the pitfalls of current policy, which he said puts scientists in a "funny place."

Wonder if he's referring to pulmonologists having to sit idly by with a dearth of data on the effects of, say, vaping, while watching thousands of people diagnosed with severe lung injury in 2019, including 47 deadly cases. Funny isn't the word we'd choose.

At least Collins was able to articulate the problems with the current framework for cannabis research, starting with the fact that it all has to be done using cannabis grown at a federally sanctioned farm at the University of Mississippi, which produces bud of a distinctly — cough — different quality than you'd find at virtually any dispensary.

"People don't realize that I run a farm in Mississippi that grows marijuana because I'm required to do so," Collins told C-SPAN. "That's the only source that investigators can use, and it may be rather different than what you could get in one of the states where marijuana is now approved."

Writing for Vox, reporter German Lopez described the federal pot coming out of Mississippi as "terrible," saying it "looks more like oregano than pot."

Collins added that another deterrent is the laborious process scientists must go through to receive federal approval to get their hands on shitty weed to study. Projects must first be cleared by the Drug Enforcement Agency before going over to the Food and Drug Administration. It's a process that in some cases — under some administrations — has been known to take years.

The sad irony of the whole situation is that the scheduling tiers under the Controlled Substances Act were ostensibly created to limit access. As Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse said, a substance is given Schedule 1 status "in order to protect the public so that they don't get exposed to it."

Of course, that rationale is beyond ridiculousness, especially in 2020, when 33 states have legalized cannabis in some form, including 11 for recreational sales. At least 207 million people live in these states, according to www.politifact.com, with adults among them being "exposed" to cannabis on a daily basis.

While federal prohibition as a whole needs to end, the first priority needs to be allowing widespread research of real cannabis — not the stuff on Francis' farm — in federally licensed and funded institutions.

After all, there's a lot at stake.

For example, research set to be studied this month by a team at McLean Hospital found a link between cannabis use and diminished driving performance, even when the driver isn't actively stoned. The study, which monitored 45 people who identified as heavy cannabis users on a driving simulator, found they hit more pedestrians, missed more stop signs and red lights, veered out of their lane more often and drove faster than their non-imbibing counterparts, even when they hadn't used cannabis for at least 12 hours. (They also found the worst of the imbibing drivers were cannabis users who'd begun imbibing heavily before the age of 16.)

For those of us who drive Humboldt County's roads daily and maybe have children we're petrified of watching turn into teenagers one day, for the love of God, end the madness and allow real, meaningful study of cannabis.

The truth is, lots of lives depend on it and some have already been lost.

's news editor and prefers he/him pronouns. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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