Despite its nearly century-long prohibition in the U.S., marijuana is nonetheless one of the most investigated therapeutically active substances in history. To date, there are over 20,000 published studies and scientific reviews pertaining to the cannabis plant and cannabinoids, nearly one-third of which were published since 2010. For example, a series of clinical trials at the University of California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research in 2010 concluded that marijuana should be considered a “first-line treatment” for patients suffering from neuropathy, a type of nerve pain that is notoriously difficult to treat that results from diabetes, cancer, spinal cord injury and other seriously debilitating conditions. The trials, which were conducted under the FDA’s “gold-standard” of clinical trial design, found that patients who were treated with marijuana experienced reduced pain levels to a degree that was as good or better than any medications currently on the market. (Id.). Another trial conducted by the Center focusing on multiple sclerosis found that “smoked cannabis was superior to [a] placebo in reducing spasticity and pain in patients with MS, and provided some benefit beyond currently prescribed treatments.”
Marijuana, however, is currently classified as a Schedule I substance–the most dangerous level of drug classification–alongside heroin and MDMA. Schedule I drugs are defined as those having no currently accepted medical use, high potential for abuse and that cannot be safely used even under medical supervision. The plant’s strict classification means that all clinical trials involving marijuana or its extracts require explicit approval by the DEA. Because of the extensive red tape involved with receiving such approval, as well as the likelihood of requests being denied, many researchers feel that the full spectrum of marijuana’s medical potential remains untapped. Further, marijuana remains the only Schedule I drug that the DEA prohibits from production by private laboratories for scientific research. Just one research facility, located at the University of Mississippi, has been permitted by the DEA to produce marijuana for clinical studies.
In 2009, increasing controversy over the unused and unknown medical applications of marijuana prompted the American Medical Association to strongly recommend that the legislature reschedule marijuana so that its potential medical uses can be fully researched. But, as scientists have argued, it is extremely difficult to prove marijuana’s safety and usefulness without numerous clinical trials, which have largely been impeded by the DEA’s research approval process. Without the backing results of clinical studies, scientists have not been able to prove that marijuana is safe enough to be rescheduled as a Schedule II substance, even though Schedule II includes drugs most consider to be exponentially more dangerous than marijuana, including cocaine, opium and PCP.