Federal authorities are weighing whether to stop classifying marijuana among the riskiest drugs, a move that cannabis advocates have long hoped would result in more research on its health effects, businesses having an easier time selling it and fewer people going to jail.
But experts warn the August recommendation by the Department of Health and Human Services to strip marijuana’s designation as a Schedule I drug may not fulfill those hopes.
All controlled substances come with restrictions on research, but marijuana and other Schedule I substances have the toughest requirements. Experts say it’s imperative to conduct more research on marijuana to understand its benefits and risks as legal markets flourish and consumer use soars.
To gain access to pot, researchers need to register with the DEA under rules that would not apply if they studied Schedule II substances like cocaine and fentanyl.
Some researchers have found ways to get around these rules, but their studies have limitations.
For example, Washington State University researchers studying the cognitive effects of cannabis had to use Zoom to observe participants who just used marijuana they bought at dispensaries. The ideal study would involve researchers providing high-potency cannabis from dispensaries, including a placebo to a control group, and participants coming to a lab to provide blood samples and record physiological data points such as heart rate variability and cortisol levels that cannot be measured over Zoom.
The university risks losing federal funding if researchers administer cannabis themselves even though marijuana is legal in Washington, said Carrie Cuttler, an associate professor of psychology who directs The Health & Cognition (THC) Lab at Washington State.
“It’s absurd, absolutely absurd,” she said, “to treat cannabis as pretty much the most dangerous narcotic available in the world.”
Despite these restrictions, there is still plenty of research done on marijuana without ever handling the physical drug.