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With legal weed coming to New Jersey, U.S. must open doors for cannabis research

There’s an ancient botanical that millions of Americans take for epilepsy, cancer pain, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, multiple sclerosis and other serious and debilitating conditions.

The drug is cannabis. But American researchers who want to study cannabis are thwarted at every turn. Federal law still classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, a list that includes highly dangerous and addictive drugs such as heroin. The government says cannabis has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Even cocaine is not a Schedule 1 drug.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration limits research to poor quality cannabis from a sole supplier. Researchers who want to study the cannabis that patients are actually taking today are out of luck.

The majority of Americans now live in a state where medicinal cannabis is legal. Yet objective research into what strains help — or hurt — specific conditions, as well as the best dosages, is hindered by federal restrictions. Don’t blame researchers. Can we expect them to jeopardize their research grants, even their medical licenses, to study cannabis?

The time to change the classification of cannabis and open the door to quality research is now. The U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs voted recently to reclassify cannabis. In Washington, D.C., the House of Representatives voted to pass the MORE Act, which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. The House also passed the Marijuana Research Act, which would allow scientists to obtain cannabis for research from states that have legalized the drug. Right now, the University of Mississippi is the only federally approved source of cannabis.

These bills will need to be re-introduced next session. I hope when our legislators review them they will consider the people I see and interact with regularly — people like Ashton Mitchell, a child with multiple conditions, including epilepsy and quadriplegic spasticity. Ashton experienced dozens, even hundreds, of seizures each day since infancy. When he turned five, Ashton’s father, Dave Mitchell of Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey, turned to the state’s Medical Marijuana Program.

Cultivation manager Nick D'Amelio works on young marijuana plants at the TerrAscend New Jersey farm in Boonton Township on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020.


After using cannabis for a few days, Ashton’s seizures declined dramatically. He went nine-months seizure free and, for the first time, could sleep with his legs straight. He began to verbalize and start standing on his own. His parents were elated.

I can tell you other stories — of patients able to ease the pain and symptoms of ALS, Tourette’s syndrome, and muscular dystrophy.  All these patients deserve high quality research, including research into cannabis with different levels of THC, the component that causes psychoactive affects.

As chair of the Cannabis Education and Research Institute (CERI), I’m proud that we are driving research into cannabis, and that we’ve begun studies in which patients report their personal experiences. We are working with patient advocacy organizations and a medical school, Drexel University School of Medicine in Philadelphia. On our advisory board is a board-certified physician who incorporates cannabis into the treatment of patients and a scientist who studies cannabis. They both want the federal rules that inhibit their research eased, if not removed.

In November, New Jersey voters voted to legalize recreational marijuana. I fear that without needed research, the medicinal cannabis market will now suffer. Patients may turn to recreational markets for cannabis and not work with their physicians. Growers of the strains that medical patients need may decide to grow more lucrative strains for the recreational market. We have seen this happen in other states.

Right now, just a small number of physicians are willing to recommend cannabis to their patients. In New Jersey, just 1,250 doctors out of nearly 16,000 practicing physicians in the state have signed up for the state’s Medical Marijuana Program. At CERI, we believe research can save the medicinal market by giving physicians more confidence in recommending cannabis. Research also may drive third-party payers to cover cannabis.

Chris Kirkwood, a cultivation technician, works in a greenhouse at the TerrAscend marijuana farm in Boonton Township, NJ on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020.


Remember that about 40% of the pharmaceuticals used in the Western world today are derived from plants. Cannabis should be treated like any other medicine. That means we must understand its benefits as well as its harms. That means we must loosen the federal ties that bind the hands of researchers.

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