The upside down world of marijuana legalization

Marijuana is being legalized in an upside down fashion. States are passing a wide variety of laws. There are states that tightly control the use of medicinal marijuana only, states that effectively decriminalize possession but don’t allow the sale of marijuana and states like Colorado and Washington that have fully permitted using, growing and selling. On the one hand, this is an admirable exercise in federalism, allowing different states with different political cultures to become the great “laboratories of democracy” that Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis applauded. On the other hand, the legalization process is moving ahead without important resources that only the federal government can bring to it.

Chief among these is the ability to do controlled, professional, scientific testing on drugs. This is a complex and expensive process that exists, for good reason, under federal oversight. Given the complexity and expense of the undertaking—and the need for uniformity in standards—it would make no sense for states to do their own drug testing and research. Today, 23 states and the District of Columbia allow the use of medical marijuana and yet, compared to other drugs, we know relatively little about the benefits and risks. Thus, as legalization expands, research on medical marijuana is critical. This research could also help create more effective regulation of recreational marijuana. Since it has been legal to buy marijuana, emergency room doctors in Colorado have seen an increase in visits from people who have smoked or eaten too much marijuana. Two factors seem to be behind this. First, this isn’t your father’s marijuana. Apparently, what’s being grown and sold today is much more potent than what was sold to the baby boomers in their college years. And second, the increased popularity of “edibles,” food such as brownies or cookies that have marijuana cooked into it, increases the time it takes to feel the effects, causing many people to simply eat too much.

All of this points to the need for more scientific testing of marijuana. And yet, as a new Brookings paper titled “Ending the U.S. government’s war on medical marijuana research” by scholars John Hudak and Grace Wallack argues, the necessary science of marijuana is not keeping up with the movement towards legalization. The problem starts with the designation of marijuana as a “Schedule I” drug, a designation reserved for drugs with no medicinal value. “The current Schedule I designation of cannabis,” they write, “in conjunction with the numerous additional, and unique institutional rules regulating the substance, creates a circular policy trap that hinders scientific research.” This means that for research to expand, the government would do well to “reschedule” marijuana as a “Schedule II” drug.

But even that would not spur the kind of research that will be needed as the movement-towards-legalization train leaves the station. Hudak and Wallack point to a wide variety of stumbling blocks; from the DEA-created monopoly that allows only one source for the production of marijuana for studies, to the “complex licensing matrix between DEA, FDA, and state law,” to the “bizarre legal environment” that surrounds marijuana today. Every year, more and more states are being added to the list of those that allow medical marijuana. And yet, the drug is being “approved” without enough science behind it.

Hudak and Wallack end their plea for stopping the government’s war on medical marijuana research by pointing out that this could be the ultimate “strange bedfellows” alliance. “Expanding research should be a cause championed by the most passionate pro-marijuana advocates as well as the most ardent drug warriors—and everyone in between,” they write. And they are right. No matter where you are on the spectrum between those who think it’s a valuable and harmless drug to those who think it’s a dangerous “gateway” drug, given the recent legal trends it is hard to be against more research. Hudak and Wallack lay out a keen and sensible way of reforming the research laws to meet the reality of our time.

Click here to read the full paper, “Ending the U.S. government’s war on medical marijuana research,” by John Hudak and Grace Wallack.