News21: America's Weed Rush

Part 1: Government funding, lack of restrictions slow progress on medical marijuana research

Research on marijuana's potential for medicinal use has been hampered for years by federal restrictions, even though nearly half of the states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana in some form.

An analysis by News21 shows that $1.1 billion of the $1.4 billion that the National Institute of Health spent on marijuana research from 2008 to 2014 went toward research on marijuana abuse and addiction. Only $297 million was spent on its effects on the brain and potential medical benefits for those suffering from conditions like chronic pain.

"We don't have new things to treat for pain," said Dr. Todd Vanderah, chief of pharmacology at the University of Arizona. "We're still dealing with narcotics that have been around for thousands of years, and it's led to this issue of people abusing drugs and the rise of heroin."

Some parents with children suffering from seizures want to try medical marijuana to treat their children more effectively than current medicine has been able to, but the Food and Drug Administration has not approved any marijuana-based medicines for seizures.

"We know it will help our children or potentially give them a better quality of life," said Heather Shuker, the mother of a girl with Dravet syndrome,a form of epilepsy. "We're being denied that because they (federal agencies and doctors) don't know the long-term side effects of medical cannabis."

Amphetamine and stimulants like it, typically prescribed as Adderall or Ritalin, are used to treat attention deficit disorder despite their potential to be addictive. "I was diagnosed with ADD when I was a kid. They gave me Ritalin and that was just a really bad thing," said Jason Mac Adam, a medical marijuana patient in Hawaii. "I ended up becoming a meth addict. ... I've used medical marijuana to help me get away from my meth addiction, as a medication to get me away from my anxiety."

Yet researchers like Vanderah have faced challenges getting federal approval and funding to study marijuana's potential medical uses for these and many other conditions. "The progress is a little limited because research is done based off of grants that have been harder and harder to get," Vanderah said.

Although medical and even recreational marijuana use has been increasingly legalized by states, the federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug — like heroin and ecstasy — meaning there is potential for its abuse and it has no medical benefits.

So the approval process for doing any kind of research on marijuana is lengthy and difficult, with the FDA, DEA and NIDA all playing roles in allowing an approved researcher access to federal funding and federally-provided marijuana.

"It took me three years from the time I got funding to the time I could enroll my first subject," said Dr. Mark Wallace, a researcher studying pain treatments at the University of California, San Diego. "Once we got approval it wasn't that hard to do, as far as getting the marijuana."

Fewer than 1,000 NIH-supported research projects studied marijuana for purposes other than abuse or addiction in the last seven years. University-backed researchers and a few larger companies have been able to use their own funding, rather than grants from the NIH, and their own advanced laboratories to study marijuana and cannabinoids—the chemicals found within it—as potential treatments for conditions like seizures and breast cancer pain.

"I think in the near future we're going to see it (research) get easier and easier to do," Wallace said. "I don't see how the federal government is going to continue to put so many restrictions on it."

Spending disparity

News21 analyzed federally funded drug research projects from 2008 to 2014 using the NIH's publicly available database, Project Reporter. The $1.1 billion NIH spent to study marijuana abuse and addiction was $200 million more than what the organization spent working on and studying crystal meth, a highly addictive stimulant that the DEA has called an epidemic.

While NIH spent $297 million on grants for non-abuse research of marijuana, it provide two to four times as much for similar research of opiates and benzodiazepines, including drugs like Xanax, according to the News21 analysis. Opiates are the narcotics that Vanderah said can cause prescription drug dependency that leads to heroin abuse.

The research on marijuana abuse and addiction was largely, but not exclusively, funded by NIDA, a branch of NIH. The research covered subjects like how parents can prevent substance abuse and studies of cannabis use disorder, which the American Psychiatric Association calls a problematic pattern of marijuana use.

More federal money was spent researching potential marijuana abuse than on abuse of amphetamine and ketamine (an anesthetic sometimes used as a club drug), despite their histories of recreational use.

This is from a continuing series from America's Weed Rush, an investigation of marijuana legalization in America, a 2015 project of the Carnegie-Knight News21 program produced by the nation's top journalism students and graduates.

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