An epidemic of opioid abuse is ravaging the United States and, as we look for ways to respond to it, some see cannabis as part of the solution, while others see it as part of the problem. This is just one area in which unbiased scientific research is necessary, but outdated federal legislation, having concluded almost 50 years ago that there is no medical value to cannabis, is blocking all meaningful efforts to understand the real benefits and risks of the plant.
There are critical open questions about cannabis, and without research conducted under rigorous scientific standards, we will not find answers. If you think these questions don't really matter in daily life, let's look at three scenarios.
Your friend is one of the 1,125,000 people in California who use
Or let's say your grandfather is convinced that cannabis is the only thing that helps him with his arthritis pain. He is not alone in believing this — cannabis use in persons over 50 has tripled in the last 10 years, a phenomenon primarily driven by self-medication for pain and sleep problems. You are happy for grandpa, but then you notice that he has become more forgetful than he used to be. Is this a normal consequence of age, or a side effect of the drug? Will forgetfulness turn into memory impairment? We can't answer this question now, because the effects of cannabis have never been studied in elderly people. Research shows that that in old mice, low doses of cannabis may actually improve memory — but what about in humans?
One last example, which takes us back to the opioid crisis. States in which cannabis is legal have 25% fewer deaths for opioid overdose than states in which medical use of the drug is not allowed. These are credible data, but do not necessarily mean that cannabis is a solution to the opioid crisis. Cannabis reduces many forms of chronic pain in people, but we do not know if it can replace opioids. Nor do we know if the use of cannabis attenuates or worsens the risk of developing an opioid addiction.
Finding the answers to all of the above questions is more than feasible.
Yet the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, or CSA, stands in the way. First, researchers seeking to study cannabis and its chemical constituents (even the innocuous cannabidiol) may only use plant material from a single federal contractor, the
This is not news. We have known for years that the Controlled Substance Act is the single greatest impediment to increasing our knowledge of cannabis. It matters now because, come January,
California's Bureau of Cannabis Control is working hard to put sensible guidelines in place and regulate its use, but even the most thoughtful regulation cannot replace research. If science does not fill the knowledge void, then interest-driven pseudo-science will. Ideologists and special interests are already pushing hard in that direction.
Proposition 64 calls for and funds research on cannabis. Despite out-of-date federal legislation, it is essential that we implement this key component of the proposition and support the rigorous scientific work needed by medical providers, consumers, law enforcement and entrepreneurs alike.
Daniele Piomelli and Bob Solomon are directors of the UCI Center for the Study of Cannabis.