Medical cannabis research just got a much-needed shot in the arm. On June 22, the White House lifted the mandatory Public Health Service (PHS) review for any non-government study involving the plant’s potential medicinal properties. As stated by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the review is “no longer necessary to support the conduct of scientifically-sound studies into the potential therapeutic uses of marijuana.”
In 1999, the HHS announced a new program to facilitate cannabis-related study, but the review process created a new level of bureaucracy that seemed intent on impairing it. Requests to conduct studies required an intensive PHS review, an additional level of oversight only applied to cannabis. The 1999 press release stated that the plant’s Schedule I status—“the most restrictive of the five federally regulated classes of controlled substances,” it noted—necessitated the additional review process, but other Schedule I substances like heroin, LSD and PCP have no such requirement. In a 2015 article calling the process severe and difficult, Time magazine said the PHS “delayed and thwarted much research for more than 15 years.”
A bipartisan group of Representatives including Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) had long called for HHS to lift the review requirement. Even anti-legalization groups like Smart Approaches to Marijuana wanted a change.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) will now assist with cannabis-related research. Mario Moreno Zepeda, a spokesperson for the drug-czar's office, said, “The Obama Administration has actively supported scientific research on whether marijuana or its components can be safe and effective medicine. Eliminating the Public Health Service review should help facilitate additional research to advance our understanding of both the adverse effects and potential therapeutic uses for marijuana or its components.”
In press release, Rep. Blumenauer added, “Today’s decision by HHS is a significant step toward improving an antiquated system that unfairly targets marijuana above and beyond other substances in research. I hope this action will facilitate easier access to marijuana for medical researchers. Considering the widespread use of medical marijuana, it is absolutely essential that we allow doctors and scientists to research the therapeutic benefits and risks of its use. There is still more to be done to ensure this happens. I am working on legislation to address these issues, and I look forward to working with the Administration and my colleagues in Congress to further increase research.”