The decision of the DEA to leave cannabis listed as a Schedule I drug made lots of cannabis enthusiasts disappointed. However, the U.S. government made it significantly easier for researchers to conduct studies on cannabis and its compounds, as it allowed more marijuana manufacturers to grow weed for studies.
Since the DEA explains their rejection to reschedule cannabis with the fact that there is not enough medical evidence of marijuana's benefits, it seems that in the following months or even years, it is up to the scientific field to make a difference in the issue.
So far, studies on marijuana have faced lots of problems. Starting with the lack of labs that would agree to conduct a study on a Schedule I substance on their base, up to the lack of marijuana itself, as the studies are supposed to use only well-checked material. The government simply hindered the studies on the drug.
Not everyone in the scientific world believes in the beneficial role of marijuana in medicine. Although more than 20 states have already legalized cannabis as a medical treatment, many researchers remain skeptical. More than this, there are still a great number of scientists who do not know anything about marijuana's medicinal use. It is difficult to believe that the plant that has been used for centuries is now a terra incognita for us.
Does it mean that the scientists who are working on cannabis properties can breathe a sigh of relief now? Not really. There are still lots of problems on the way, but since it has become easier now, it is already a big step forward. The medicinal world can benefit a lot from these studies. Whatever they find out, it will in any case be more than we know now. “Without these studies, we are basically flying blind with regard to medical marijuana in my opinion,” says Sachin Patel who studies cannabis at Vanderbilt University.
It is clear that the government wants to save citizens from the potentially dangerous drug. And they will change their mind only if the facts are solid. However, in the scientific world, they seem to look at the situation in a drastically different way. “In the biomedical research community, it is universally understood that cannabis is a very safe, well-tolerated medicine,” says Gregory Gerdeman, an Assistant Professor of Biology at Eckerd College.
So what are the questions that scientists need to answer? What is it they need to know so that the government can make the final decision about marijuana? Let us look closer at the main issues that researchers want to explore.
It is quite clear now that cannabis has a great palliative effect and can significantly alleviate symptoms associated with chemotherapy. But what if marijuana can be an alternative to chemotherapy and used as an effective cancer treatment? This assertion seems implausible, but to prove that it is impossible more studies are required.
By now, there are lots of evidence of marijuana showing tumor-fighting activities and lots of legitimate clinical case studies that show the positive effect of cannabinoids on sparing deadly cancer cells. However, it is not clear yet whether it is possible to use marijuana as an effective cancer treatment, and if it is, for which cancer types it works the best.
Several studies have shown that marijuana use leads to measurable changes in the brain's reward system. Are these changes good or bad? It is not clear yet. The media believes that this data is strong evidence that marijuana brings damage to the human health; however, “changes” does not mean damage. “[Changes] are within the range of normal human variation as far as we currently understand,” comments Gerderman on the situation.
We already know that different cannabis compounds can bring different effects on the human brain and body. Moreover, the effect can also depend on the dose. So, this information definitely requires more investigation.
One of the preclinical studies published in 2014 showed that the THC compound, the one that brings a psychoactive effect, had a therapeutic effect on Alzheimer's disease treatment. They found that microdoses of THC could suppress the growth of toxic amyloid plaques and, therefore, slow the progression of Alzheimer's. This study, among others, supports the effectiveness of THC in medicine. There is even a theory that THC can also mitigate brain damage from, for instance, a concussion or stroke. However, only additional studies and trials can show whether it is possible.
It is not a secret that only the THC compound causes a psychoactive effect on a person, and the rest of compounds (CBD, CBG, and others) do not provide this effect. Every compound interacts with the human body differently, and it is up to scientists to know how exactly it is possible to use them to treat a person's disorder.
Moreover, even THC has certain benefits for human health, and in low doses, its unwanted side-effects are almost unnoticeable. Like all drugs, marijuana should be consumed wisely. It is up to researchers to find out which strain is more beneficial for one or another condition, which dose of marijuana will manage the problem the best.
There are plenty of evidence that cannabis can help people manage their anxiety problems. However, it is still not clear what kind of process happens inside the human body that causes this effect. “Without the clinical trials, it may be a long time before we know for sure,” believes Patel.
This is probably one of the most intriguing and most important tasks scientists need to clarify. While most studies concentrate on the short-term effects of cannabis, long-term consequences are still unknown.
We still have a very unclear idea of what happens with the brain development when under the marijuana influence. It is especially important to know how prenatal use of marijuana can impact into adulthood. We also need to find out whether there are any changes in the human body and brain long after the drug is administered.
This question interests doctors since it has been clear that there is a real opioid epidemic. In 2014, drug overdose deaths in the U.S. hit record numbers—more than six out of ten involved an opioid, including prescription painkillers and heroin. Every year, it costs more than $72 billion to cover the medical costs on all of the opioid abuse.
At the same time, states where medical marijuana is legalized managed to save $165.2 million per year in medical costs. In some cases, marijuana can completely substitute painkillers, in others, it can have a synergistic effect, which means a patient will consume less of the opioid or consume it for a shorter period with the same effect.