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Medical Pot Researchers Wrestle with Federal Restrictions

Researchers like Dr. Sue Sisley are hamstrung by weed's status as a Schedule I drug.

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Dr. Sisley with Sanjay Gupta. Photo via

By Victoria Kim

08/15/14

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The medical use of marijuana is allowed in almost half of the states in the U.S. as well as the District of Columbia, yet obstacles to researching weed have grown harder to overcome than ever before.

For researchers like Dr. Sue Sisley, who sought federal approval to study marijuana’s effect on military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, the process of obtaining the drug legally involved going through the Food and Drug Administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is the only legal source of marijuana for federally sanctioned research.

A major obstacle to marijuana research is drug scheduling, a result of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Marijuana is considered a Schedule I drug, in the same category as heroin, LSD, peyote, and ecstasy. Schedule I drugs are considered to have no accepted medical use in the U.S. and a high potential for abuse, and are thus subject to tight restrictions on scientific research.

Proponents of moving marijuana to a less restrictive category say this could reduce obstacles to research. In 2011, Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Washington’s governor at the time, Christine O. Gregoire, filed a petition asking the federal government to place marijuana in a lower category. The petition is still pending with the DEA.

“It defies logic in this day and age that marijuana is still in Schedule I alongside heroin and LSD when there is so much testimony to what relief medical marijuana can bring,” Chafee said in an interview.

More than one million people are thought to use marijuana to cope with ailments ranging from cancer to seizures to hepatitis C and chronic pain.

Progress might seem slow-going, but a growing number of elected state officials, medical experts, and members of Congress have started calling for easing the cumbersome rules involved in studying medical marijuana.

In May, the DEA established new rules to increase the government’s production of marijuana for study this year from 21,000 grams to 650,000 grams.

In June, a letter signed by 30 members of Congress called the tight restrictions on marijuana research “unnecessary” saying that research “has often been hampered by federal barriers.”

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