Without legalization of marijuana, medical advances are limited

Jessica Fautch and Kyle Howard
York College
FILE - In this Friday, March 22, 2019 file photo, an employee at a medical marijuana dispensary in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., sorts buds into prescription bottles. Recreational sales of cannabis for adults 21 and older are scheduled to start Thursday, April 21, 2022 with the first alternative treatment centers opening at 6 a.m. in part of the state. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

Marijuana. Cannabis. Weed. Grass. Dope. This drug has a variety of names, but it all boils down to one scientific one: Cannabis sativa. Regulations surrounding the plant and its extracts are changing by the minute, particularly at the state level. At the federal level, however, despite a recent bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, marijuana remains classified as a schedule I compound, meaning there is “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

While many tend to think of laws like this in terms of recreational use, a schedule I classification also presents barriers to scientific research. In fact, much is still unknown about the extent of health benefits marijuana offers. Legalizing the plant across the country, including here in Pennsylvania, is critical to advancing the full scientific potential of cannabis — which has implications for everything from medicine and agriculture to industry and economics. 

Even with limited opportunities for study, scientists know the positive health impacts from ingesting C. sativa are plentiful.

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Eating it, smoking it, vaping it; the effects can be anywhere from a relaxed high to a treatment for anxiety, inflammation, chronic pain and reducing side effects from chemotherapy. Our culturally acceptable mood-altering drugs — caffeine and alcohol — have seen recent medical research drawing their health impacts into question.

Marijuana is not the only elicit substance that is being explored for untapped medical applications. Drugs like MDMA, ketamine and psilocybin have been explored for therapeutic treatment of disorders such as PTSD, depression or anxiety.

There is potential for medicinal marijuana to aid with a myriad of diseases, including epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. Recently, researchers showed that cannabinoids derived from C. sativa have the ability to stop Covid-19 from infecting cells. 

Scientists are still learning about how marijuana (and what part of it) causes desirable health effects. But strict regulations on marijuana as a schedule I drug have made it terribly challenging for chemists to extract, identify and characterize the compounds within the plant itself. Obtaining the licensure to possess schedule I drugs is time consuming and expensive, and not conducive to advancing research discoveries related to C. sativa. We know that the plant itself gives rise to hundreds of chemical components, with the most important class of chemicals being cannabinoids. 

Cannabinoids are a class of compounds already known to be in the plant and do not require a special license to obtain. This includes things like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which produces a psychoactive effect, and cannabidiol (CBD).

However, the lack of chemical testing and laboratory oversight on cannabinoid-infused products has led to an explosion of consumer products containing CBD — it’s in lip balm, candy, lotions and hair products, to name a few. Trained scientists are not driving this boom — chemical data on these CBD-infused products is slim to none. Without rigorous testing and research, the true mechanism of action will remain unknown.

If states like Pennsylvania legalized marijuana, skilled scientists would have minimal barriers to both investigating consumer products for validity as well as studying the chemical cause of health effects from the C. sativa plant itself. 

Reducing the roadblocks to research is the first step; legalizing marijuana for recreational use and reducing the drug scheduling at the federal level will lead to even more discoveries linking cannabis to medical treatments and other important uses. Hemp, the same plant species of C. sativa but with very low levels of THC, literally has hundreds of agricultural and industrial uses such as textiles, clothing, food, paper, bioplastics, insulation, and biofuels which could be a boon to Pennsylvania agriculture. 

In the last 10 years, 145 million Americans live in states where marijuana is legal. These states leading the charge on legalized marijuana (i.e. Michigan, Washington and Colorado) have seen many benefits. In addition to increased potential for chemical research findings, the tax money from recreational marijuana has created a new revenue source for state programs and infrastructure.

Many industries have benefited from legalized recreational marijuana, such as tourism, banking, food, real estate, education, construction and transportation. Unlike the waves of opioid overdoses accompanying their legal status, legalizing marijuana will not have the same effect. As the DEA maintains, “No deaths from overdose of marijuana have been reported.”

Dissolving the stigma surrounding this drug needs to happen now. The severe regulations and laws around marijuana need to be dissolved, at both the state and federal levels.

Until that time, Pennsylvania is missing out on improving the livelihood of citizens with medical conditions such as anxiety and chronic pain, veterans and others suffering from PTSD and other mental health conditions, agricultural uses, and local industry and business — not to mention the growth in employment in the cannabis research and development industry. These are just a few of the benefits we can list today; just imagine the yet-to-be-discovered scientific discoveries that will better the lives of everyone.  

— Jessica Fautch is an associate professor of chemistry and Kyle Howard is a chemistry lab instructor at York College of Pennsylvania.