The head of the top federal medical research agency said in a new interview that marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug inhibits studies into the plant and prevents scientists from researching the effects of cannabis that consumers are obtaining from state-legal dispensaries in a growing number of states.
Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), discussed the limitations imposed by the federal drug scheduling system during an appearance on C-SPAN’s Newsmakers that aired last week, saying that while he shares concerns about the potential health implications of smoking marijuana, research into the risks and benefits of cannabis is being impeded by current policy.
“Frankly, we know far too little about the benefits and risks of smoked marijuana,” Collins said. “There have been very few studies that have actually rigorously tested that.”
The director said scientists are in a “funny place” in the U.S. when it comes to cannabis, noting that in order to use federal funds to research the plant and its compounds, the products must come from a single source: a government-authorized farm at the University of Mississippi that cultivates marijuana that’s been widely criticized for lacking the properties associated with cannabis that’s commercially available in state markets.
“People don’t realize that I run a farm in Mississippi that grows marijuana because I’m required to do so,” Collins said, referring to the facility that’s licensed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which is part of NIH. “But 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 in terms of its constituents.”
“It’s going to be very hard to interpret data about smoked marijuana when the actual nature of the product is vastly different depending on where you got it” with respect to properties like THC and CBD content, he said.
“We’d really like to have studies where you’re studying those compounds in pure form so you can see what they’re doing,” he said. “But again because of various limitations of Schedule I limits, we are not able to do as much as we would like.”
Another “big deterrent” to research is the extensive series of hurdles that scientists must overcome to receive approval to study marijuana, Collins said. Researchers must be cleared by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and also submit an investigational new drug application to the Food and Drug Administration in order to conduct cannabis-involved clinical studies on humans.
The discussion on C-SPAN about scientific limitations came in response to a question about whether the marijuana industry is exerting any influence over federally approved research initiatives. While NIH faced criticism in 2018 over its handling of a study into potential benefits of moderate alcohol consumption because alcohol interests were actively engaging in the study process, Collins said the scientific community is not experiencing that kind of influence from cannabis businesses.
“I would not say at the present time that industry is attempting really to influence a lot of what we’re doing in the marijuana area,” he said, adding that NIH is currently putting about $150 million into marijuana research projects.
Collins and several other federal health officials have previously acknowledged that the Schedule I status of cannabis represents a significant barrier to research.
NIDA Nora Volkow said last year that “the moment that a drug gets a Schedule I, which is done in order to protect the public so that they don’t get exposed to it, it makes research much harder.”
Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also said that cannabis’s federal scheduling status has presented “some challenges,” which have undermined the agency’s efforts to effectively test vaping products that contain THC amid an outbreak of lung injuries.
A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers is trying to address the research problem concerning the lack of diverse cannabis products available to scientists. In a letter sent last month, 21 members of Congress urged DEA to let researchers obtain marijuana from state-legal dispensaries to more accurately assess the impact of products that consumers are using.