Last week the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) signaled that it could reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug. The shift in policy would downgrade cannabis from being listed alongside drugs like heroin that have “no current medical use” to being in the same category as Adderall and oxycodone.
If the reclassification goes through, it could have massive implications for the medical world—especially in the realm of medical marijuana research.
While marijuana itself is approved in some states to treat a host of conditions—from epilepsy to chronic pain—there are only a few approved pharmaceuticals based on marijuana-derived compounds, including Marinol, which treats stomach issues in cancer patients, and Sativex, which treats muscle spasms in patients with multiple sclerosis. Many others are in development and some are approved for use in dozens of countries, but are still restricted in the U.S.
A reclassification from the DEA could open the door to more research marijuana compounds, which advance scientists’ understanding of how those compounds can be used in pharmaceuticals.
Approval of new drugs from the FDA requires robust scientific evidence that the drug is safe and effective—a process that is currently stymied by the DEA’s classification. According to a report by ABC News, if researchers want to examine compounds in marijuana they have to endure special licensing from the DEA and a background visit, which makes approval lengthier and more arduous. Plus, there is only one supplier of medical marijuana for researchers.
But if scientists can get their hands on more marijuana for research, they will have around 60 compounds to play with and discover potential medical uses for.
One medical marijuana advocate called the potential change a “paradigm shift.”
Dr. Kevin Hill, assistant professor of psychiatry at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School, said in support of the change: “We could move toward a more evidence-based use of medical marijuana.”
Only problem? Many are skeptical the DEA will actually make the leap.
Numerous experts have noted that there are multiple reasons to lower expectations about the DEA’s forthcoming decision, including the agency’s poor track record on cannabis (the agency has been receiving calls to change the classification for years and hasn’t budged yet) and a lack of intense political pressure.
The DEA is expected to render a decision sometime before August.