"Consider what American science might look like if all research were run like marijuana research is being run now. Suppose the Institute for Creation Science were put in charge of approving paleontology digs and the science of human evolution. Imagine what would happen to the environment if we gave coal and oil companies the power to block any climate research they didn’t like."
-John Henry Schwarz, Theoretical Physicist & Father of String Theory
When it comes to marijuana research, the federal government is like having a teacher who hates you but who you've always really wanted to impress, because underneath it all you want their respect. You keep trying to find ways to prove how you're not a total failure and you do have some redeeming qualities. But whenever you have a project that will finally let you express your talents and positive qualities, the teacher refuses to grade it. That's medical marijuana research.
Medical marijuana research is a classic catch 22. The FDA has no problem approving research proposals on the medicinal uses of marijuana, and for nearly every other drug known to man FDA approval is all you need in order to perform clinical studies. But marijuana research must also gain NIDA's approval in order to purchase NIDA's marijuana. NIDA alone can grow marijuana for FDA-approved clinical research, and NIDA unilaterally controls appropriations to researchers of the marijuana they grow. The problem is it's close to impossible to gain approval for medicinal research of marijuana from an agency whose legally established mission is to research how marijuana is the opposite of medicine, and in fact "highly abusive."
NIDA has a monopoly on medical marijuana research, and they're the first to admit their bias. "As the National Institute on Drug Abuse, our focus is primarily on the negative consequences of marijuana use," a spokesperson told the New York Times in 2010. "We generally do not fund research focused on the potential beneficial medical effects of marijuana."
Generally, as in almost never.
Medical researchers are required to submit information on their clinical studies to clinicaltrials.gov. By searching research on "marijuana" in the US, we find some telling information on how we research marijuana in the US.
There are a total of 142 clinical studies on marijuana. Of those, 101 are sponsored by the federal government.
Let's look at the 101 government studies first. There are a total of 5 clinical studies related to medical marijuana. Only one is actually studying whether marijuana has medicinal value. That study is researching medical marijuana and spinal injuries. The other 4 are tangentially related to medical marijuana, such as researching the pharmacology of how marijuana and opiates interact. Of the 5 studies, 3 of them are still in the "recruiting" phase, including the only one actually researching marijuana to treat a condition.
That leaves 96 government studies on marijuana abuse. Everything from "Assessment of Cannabis Craving in Schizophrenia Using Virtual Reality" to, I kid you not, "Nicotine for Marijuana Withdrawal."
This is an issue where the government started with the "fact" that marijuana is highly abusive and they set out to study the properties of that "fact". Unfortunately, it's a fact created by what used to be the politically advantageous War on Drugs. Scientifically, it was convenient to skip that important step of researching marijuana use, on it's own, without the "abuse" tagged on there. It's like researching pipelines and treating it as fact that pipelines are intrinsically beneficial.
The non-governmental studies are more balanced. Of the 41 studies, 10 are proper medical marijuana clinical studies. There's "Cannabis for Spasticity in Multiple Sclerosis", "Marijuana for Cancer Pain", "Marijuana for HIV-Related Peripheral Neuropathy" and more. All of them were performed in California, thanks to a bill passed by the state legislature allowing funding for medical marijuana research. Yet the NGO studies are all small, nothing close to the studies with thousands of participants that the FDA requires.
Unfortunately, NGO studies don't help when trying to gain FDA approval. The FDA application process requires NIDA's approval. The one medical marijuana study NIDA has approved has a whopping 52 participants. Studies in the thousands are required by the FDA. And yet without FDA approval, marijuana remains a schedule I drug. A drug that is intrinsically highly abusive because that's what was politically convenient to label it as in 1970. That legally defined characteristic of abusiveness means the overwhelming majority of research is devoted to finding a cure for it's intrinsic abusiveness. Too bad they're the only one's who can supply the research necessary to prove themselves wrong.