Like you and a sizable contingent of members of Congress, Dr. Sue Sisley was disappointed the Drug Enforcement Administration bucked both science and public opinion when it ruled last week that cannabis would remain a Schedule I controlled substance.
But the researcher, whose long-awaited study into whether cannabis is indeed a help to combat veterans suffering from PTSD is scheduled to begin this fall, says much more than removing marijuana from the government’s list of the most dangerous and least useful drugs is needed to make real progress, on both drug policy and on our understanding of the plant.
Sisley made news in 2014 after years-long efforts to acquire funding and study-grade marijuana in order to conduct new research were finally green lighted by the federal government.
Both the DEA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) must approve any applications from researchers to study marijuana, which is then supplied from a government-run garden at the University of Mississippi. (Researchers looking into cannabis’s detrimental effects, on the other end, seem to have no problem gaining government approval.)
She made even more news when, after the state of Colorado gave $2 million to fund the study, she was suddenly and summarily dismissed from her position as a professor at the University of Arizona, leaving the funded study without a place to conduct it.
This fall, the first of 76 combat veterans will be selected to participate in the study, which will be conducted at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and at Sisley’s own Scottsdale Research Institute in Phoenix, Arizona.
Vets who have already been treated for PTSD will be given a small amount of cannabis — 1.8 grams per vet per day — to smoke in the amount they see fit. There will be four research groups, given four different strains: high THC, high CBD, a one-to-one blend, and a placebo.
Participants will be monitored over a three-week period, at which point they’ll stop for a few weeks to cleanse their bodies of cannabinoids — and then begin again with another randomized strain.
If the study is successful, “smoked botanical marijuana” — a fancy way to say “flower” — could be on its way toward becoming a federally-accepted prescription drug.
More than 100 veterans have already applied to be participants. Yet some other vets are already voicing misgivings over the study.
And it’s the government’s fault.
Most veterans who are self-medicating with cannabis to treat their PTSD symptoms are using powerful strains of up to 20 to 25 percent THC, or high CBD strains with similar strong rations, Sisley said. And how effective these widely-available cuts of cannabis are in handling PTSD will not be studied — because the government can’t provide it.
Instead, the cannabis supplied by the government is no stronger than 12 percent THC or CBD, Sisley told Cannabis Now, and the “1-to-1” strain is a “7 percent THC, 7 percent CBD blend,” she said.
Since what the government supplies is the only cannabis available, that’s all that can be studied.
“It’s just not good enough,” she said Tuesday. “Veterans are arguing that they are using 20 to 25 percent on a daily basis and apparently using it successfully.”
Baked into the Controlled Substances Act is a provision that the DEA and NIDA are the sole suppliers of cannabis for research. That, too, may be changing: while stating that marijuana would remain Schedule I, the DEA also announced that it would consider more applications from those seeking to grow it.
Both private growers as well as research universities are encouraged to apply for grow licenses, but as Sisley says, there’s a catch: Applicants must be sophisticated and talented growers, but they also must be law-abiding. And under federal law, there’s no way to grow cannabis without violating the law. It’s a Catch-22 with no easy solution in sight.
There’s still hope that the White House could step in and fix things, though that hope took a huge hit after the DEA’s announcement. Barack Obama has proved more likely than not to let states do their thing on cannabis.
“We were hoping Obama would end the DEA monopoly before he left, but it’s looking grim,” she said. “The end of his term in office is rapidly approaching, and we don’t see him asking questions as if he might do that. That would be tragic.”
Even more tragic is the political struggle on Capitol Hill to merely allow doctors at the Veterans Administration to talk to their patients about cannabis. Several pushes to allow such a moderate first step have been stymied — by Republican lawmakers who are often the first to claim to support the troops.
Recently, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) dismissed the necessity when he said that he did not think, “we have too few high veterans out there.” That led to a blistering critique from U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), but no policy change yet.
“In my mind, this is one of the most politically safe positions you can take,” Sisley said. “No one is going to fault a Republican for saying, ‘We need more science.’”
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