NIDA Director Nora Volkow Talks Marijuana Research, Kratom

By Kelly Burch 04/04/19

Volkow testified before Congress about the difficulties of researching Schedule I drugs like marijuana.  

NIDA Director Nora Volkow

Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), said during congressional testimony this week that designating a drug with Schedule I status can inhibit much-needed research. 

“Indeed, 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,” Nora Volkow said, according to Marijuana Moment. “This is because [researchers] actually have to through a registration process that is actually lengthy and cumbersome.”

Schedule I status is reserved for drugs that have no accepted medical use and are highly addictive. It includes heroin, but also marijuana. Other dangerous drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamine, are placed in the less restrictive Schedule 2 status.

Many people would like to see marijuana reclassified, or unclassified all together. 

Although marijuana is accepted for medical use in the majority of the country, it is “very difficult” for researchers to study the drug, because of its Schedule I status. Even in states where cannabis is legal for medical or recreational purposes, researchers and institutions can risk losing their federal funding if they study it without going through the federal process.

This leaves many questions about the safety of products from marijuana to CBD, Volkow said. 

The federal research process for marijuana includes lengthy delays because the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) limits the number of permits allowed for studying marijuana, and the amount of cannabis that can be grown for research purposes. Despite promising to issue more permits, the DEA has not yet significantly increased the ability of researchers to study marijuana. 

Volkow also spoke about whether the herb kratom should receive Schedule I status. She said that doing so would “make it very difficult for our researchers to get ahold of the pharmacological compound itself.”

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) suggested that the benefits of scheduling kratom (like restricting public use) might be outweighed by the negative consequence of limiting research.

“There seems to be—all the problems we’re trying to untangle right now around cannabis, marijuana specifically, because of Schedule I, I’d hate to see us put another drug there and then have to try to work backwards,” he said. “If we’re not there already, it allows you to continue to do the research.”

NIDA, the DEA and the FDA are all working on a process to streamline drug research, looking for a “path that will allow researchers to work with Schedule I drugs in a safe way, but without actually expediting that process,” according to Volkow.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.