The legal status of cannabis in the United States is rapidly changing. With medical marijuana legal in 38 states and recreational cannabis allowed in 24 states, the majority of Americans now have access to legal weed. However, without federal decriminalization, cannabis remains a Schedule I controlled substance, classified as having no accepted medical value and a high potential for abuse.
This conflict between state and federal law has limited scientific research into the health effects of cannabis. But with decriminalization efforts gaining momentum in Congress, the door could soon open for expanded cannabis research.
The Challenges of Studying a Schedule I Drug
Under federal law, conducting research on cannabis requires special licensing and approvals from entities like the DEA and FDA. Researchers must obtain cannabis from the only federally approved source – a facility at the University of Mississippi. This cumbersome process limits the supply and variety of cannabis available for research.
Additionally, cannabis’ Schedule I designation means research funding is scarce. Despite the National Institutes of Health (NIH) lifting some restrictions on cannabis research in 2015, the field remains understudied relative to the plant’s widespread use.
These barriers have stifled progress in understanding key questions around cannabis and health:
- The risks and benefits of medical cannabis use for conditions like chronic pain, epilepsy, and PTSD
- The long-term effects of recreational cannabis use on physical and mental health
- The potential therapeutic applications of individual cannabis compounds like THC and CBD
- The impacts of cannabis use during pregnancy or adolescence
How Federal Decriminalization Could Expand Scientific Inquiry
Shifting cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III or removing it from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) entirely would significantly expand research opportunities.
Schedule III classification would acknowledge accepted medical uses for cannabis while retaining some restrictions. Drugs like testosterone and acetaminophen with codeine are Schedule III controlled substances.
Removing cannabis from the CSA would effectively end federal prohibition and treat cannabis like alcohol or tobacco. States would continue regulating production and sales within their own borders.
Either outcome would likely have the following impacts on research:
More Diverse, High-Quality Cannabis
Allowing private growers to supply cannabis would give researchers access to a wider array of cannabis chemotypes, including CBD-rich strains. This would enable more studies on the distinct effects and medical benefits of THC versus CBD.
Increased Funding Sources
Removing roadblocks to federal research dollars would spur investment in cannabis studies from NIH, universities, and other traditional academic sources.
Accelerated Clinical Trials
Standardizing the cannabis supply chain would enable large-scale, placebo-controlled human trials on cannabis-based treatments for conditions like chronic pain. This high-quality evidence could lead to FDA-approved cannabis medications.
Establishing federal standards for cannabis research would help institutions navigate study approval processes and compliance requirements.
Public Support for Medical Cannabis Research
Polls consistently show strong public support for medical cannabis research. A 2021 Pew survey found that 91% of American adults favor legalizing cannabis for adult use, while 31% believe it should be legalized only for medical purposes.
Americans recognize the hypocrisy of restricting research on a substance used routinely by millions. Federal decriminalization would align public policy with public opinion when it comes to researching the health effects of this highly popular plant.
How Might Federal Rescheduling Shape the Cannabis Industry?
Beyond boosting scientific research, federal decriminalization could have wide-ranging impacts on the nascent legal cannabis industry. As more states legalize recreational and medical marijuana, the conflict with federal law creates confusion and risk for consumers, patients, businesses, and investors. Resolving this conflict would bring stability.
Here are some potential outcomes of federal decriminalization on the cannabis business landscape:
Banking and Tax Reform
Under current federal law, most banks will not service state-legal cannabis businesses, forcing the industry to operate largely in cash. Rescheduling would open up banking and bring cannabis companies into the mainstream finance system. It could also enable federal tax deductions for cannabis businesses.
Rescheduling cannabis would allow for interstate shipment of cannabis products between legal states, spurring investment in large-scale cultivation and product manufacturing. This interstate commerce could help drive product quality, consumer safety, and industry growth.
Big Business and Venture Capital
Federal decriminalization would provide assurances for large multinational companies and venture capitalists to invest in the U.S. cannabis market. Influxes of big business and venture capital could rapidly scale the industry.
If the United States federally legalized cannabis, it could pressure international bodies like the United Nations to reconsider global marijuana prohibition. This could open doors for legal American cannabis products to be exported and imported worldwide.
FDA Approval of Drugs
Rescheduling would enable conventional pharmaceutical research and clinical trials on cannabis-derived medications. Successful trials and FDA approval would expand treatment options for patients and mainstream acceptance of cannabis’ medical value.
Federal Decriminalization: The Future of Cannabis Policy
While federal cannabis policy reform currently faces obstacles in Congress, momentum is clearly building. With every new state that legalizes, the calls for federal decriminalization grow louder. Public support for both medical and recreational access continues rising year over year.
And the need for health-focused cannabis research remains urgent as use increases across the nation. Federal decriminalization would unleash scientific inquiry into this highly controversial plant. With sound scientific evidence, federal policy could finally be aligned with cannabis’ real risks and benefits to public health.