Ending the marijuana monopoly
DISCUSSION OF medical marijuana has always been heavy on rhetoric, elisions and grandiose claims. What it has lacked is reliable research that might bring some of the discussion into line with reality. This is because access to the government’s monopoly supply of research-grade marijuana is so restricted that the necessary research is effectively impossible. Now the Drug Enforcement Administration’s chief administrative law judge is recommending that the federal drug police allow competition in growing marijuana for research purposes. The administration should follow her recommendation.
At issue is the supply of research-grade marijuana produced at the University of Mississippi and overseen by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This supply is supposed to be made available to DEA-registered researchers who have undergone a rigorous review and approval process by the U.S. Public Health Service. However, both medical marijuana advocates and scientists say the institute routinely refuses to make its supply available even to licensed researchers for properly authorized studies. There are at least two FDA-approved studies that cannot go forward because no research samples are available.
This leaves researchers — and the 12 states that have so far approved marijuana for medical purposes — in a Catch-22: Drug warriors object that there is no research demonstrating marijuana’s efficacy while preventing such research from being done. Since 2001, a scientist with the University of Massachusetts Amherst has vainly petitioned the DEA for permission to produce, under conditions that even the DEA acknowledges present little risk of diversion for illicit use, another supply of research-grade marijuana.
In a recent ruling, Judge Mary Ellen Bittner agreed that that request would be in the public interest. Given its narrow confines, Bittner’s recommendation makes sense. It has no bearing on the DEA’s licensing of researchers, which would remain in place, nor would it remove the burden of proof on scientists who want access to research-grade marijuana. It would merely prevent situations in which, the judge noted, legitimate researchers who have completed all due diligence are still refused access to research samples.
The benefits of medical marijuana may turn out to be less impressive than advocates hope. All the more reason that research should be allowed to go forward, so that we can base the discussion on evidence rather than on the two sides’ vehement — but factually unsupported — claims.
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