Clearing the Smoke about Marijuana (Part 2)
In the first installment of this series, I discussed the fallacy of rescheduling as part of the “medical” marijuana issue. This final part focuses on the issues brought up by the governors in their rescheduling petition: a so-called “consensus” opinion of doctors who approve of raw marijuana as medicine, and, the issue brought on by the California Medical Association that essentially says research on marijuana cannot go forward without legalization. I will tackle each at a time.
The governors’ petition asserts that there is a “consensus of medical opinion concerning medical acceptability of cannabis amongst the largest groups of physicians in the United States.” In support of this statement, the petition cites the American Medical Association’s (AMA) alleged “reversal” of its position that marijuana should remain a Schedule I substance. However, contrary to the governors’ petition, the AMA does not believe that there has been sufficient research to justify making herbal marijuana itself available as a prescription medication: “Despite more than 30 years of clinical research, only a small number of randomized, controlled trials have been conducted on smoked cannabis.”1
Furthermore, while the AMA’s Report does state that the Schedule I status should be “reviewed,” it limits the purpose of such review to the “goal of facilitating clinical research and development of cannabinoid-based medicines, and alternate delivery methods.”2 AMA does not recommend that marijuana should be rescheduled in order that it can be directly prescribed and dispensed in its raw form to patients. In fact, the AMA recommendation goes on to caution: “This should not be viewed as an endorsement of state-based medical cannabis programs, the legalization of marijuana, or that scientific evidence on the therapeutic use of cannabis meets the current standards for a prescription drug product.” In the body of its report, AMA further clarified its position:
The future of cannabinoid-based medicine lies in the rapidly evolving field of botanical drug substance development, as well as the design of molecules that target various aspects of the endocannabinoid system. To the extent that rescheduling marijuana out of Schedule I will benefit this effort, such a move can be supported.3
The term “botanical drug substance” is derived from an FDA guidance document: “Guidance for Industry: Botanical Drug Products.”4 It refers, not to herbal plant material, but to extracts or similar preparations of the active botanical components. Rather than accepting that marijuana meets the “current, modern accepted standard for what constitute medicine,” the AMA is essentially stating that research into crude marijuana plant material is a dead end.
Rescheduling is not necessary to make marijuana products available for research
A committee of the California Medical Association recently called for the rescheduling of marijuana “so it can be tested and regulated.” However, it is not necessary for marijuana to be rescheduled in order for legitimate research to proceed. Schedule I status does not prevent a product from being tested and researched for potential medical use. The FDA (and its Controlled Substances Staff or CSS) will allow an investigational product containing a controlled substance (including Schedule I substances) to be tested in clinical (human) trials if there is adequate evidence of safety from non-human studies.5 The CSA imposes stringent security, record keeping, and other requirements, but these apply equally to Schedule I and Schedule II substances.
Under the CSA, the only differences between Schedule I and II are rather technical:6 Before granting a Schedule I research registration, the DEA will separately inquire whether the FDA believes that the researcher is qualified and competent and the trial design will elicit scientifically valid data.7 A Schedule I research registration must be renewed each year, whereas research registrations for other controlled substances are valid for 3 years. Schedule I research registrations are protocol, as well as substance, specific. By contrast, a Schedule II registration is valid for research into all Schedule II substances and protocols. Physicians, if they possess registrations to prescribe and administer products containing controlled substances, may conduct research (if permitted by the FDA and the relevant ethics committee) on any Schedule II substance; they need not obtain a separate research registration from DEA.
These additional Schedule I restrictions can delay a research program but are not insurmountable. Furthermore, it may be possible to make minor amendments to the CSA to “equalize” Schedule I and Schedule II research requirements without necessitating a rescheduling of marijuana. Now that would be an interesting thing for governors and the CMA to call for, but apparently neither seemed bothered enough to do the homework required to make such an argument.
Today, Schedule I research certainly does go forward. In a recent pharmaceutical company-sponsored human clinical study investigating a product derived from marijuana extracts, the DEA registered approximately 30 research sites in the U.S. and also registered an importer to bring the product into the U.S. from the U.K., where it was manufactured (this is for a drug called, Sativex, which combines two of marijuana’s active ingredients). What other research projects are happening? That will be the subject of a soon-to-be released report I am working on – stay tuned.
We should also mention the marijuana-based medications already on the market today. Dronabinol (Marinol ®) and Nabilone (Cesamet ®) are concentrated, synthetic versions of the most active ingredient in marijuana – THC – taken as a pill. They are in Schedule III and Schedule II, respectively, and they have been shown to be effective in the treatment of nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy in people who have already taken other medications without good results. These have undergone FDA’s process and are completely legal under the Controlled Substances Act.
By contrast to the careful and detailed structure of the Controlled Substances Act, the governors’ petition offers no criteria or guidelines that would clearly identify the scope of legitimate “medical use.” The CMA report also misstates the facts. At present in California, and several other states, it is widely recognized that the concept of “medical use” of marijuana is highly questionable. For payment of a small cash sum, almost anyone can obtain a physician’s “recommendation” to purchase, possess, and use marijuana for alleged medical purposes. Indeed, numerous studies have shown that the most customers of these dispensaries do not suffer from chronic, debilitating conditions such as HIV/AIDS or cancer and are instead otherwise healthy individuals.8,9 Both sides of the argument agree that this system has essentially legalized marijuana for recreational use, at least amongst those individuals able and willing to buy a recommendation.10 The governor’s petition would potentially expand that system on a national scale, permitting any physician in any state to prescribe any form of marijuana for any medical condition. The CMA call, while a great way to generate publicity on legalization, is also predicated on a false assertion that the only way to do research into marijuana is to legalize the drug. Sadly, vociferous calls for rescheduling and legalizing like these simply further muddle and confuse an already highly charged debate.
Kevin A. Sabet, PhD, Policy Consultant and Assistant Professor, University of Florida, College of Medicine, Division of Addiction Medicine, Department of Psychiatry. To read more from Dr. Sabet, visit www.kevinsabet.com or follow him on Twitter@kevinsabet.