While scientists have made some exciting discoveries about the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids, they’ve yet to fully understand the extent of how the natural compounds can encourage healing and health. The first documented case of cannabinoids being used as therapeutic agents dates back to 2,700 BC, and anecdotal evidence has continued to suggest cannabinoids can be used for managing symptoms and treating some conditions. Researchers interested in exploring the benefits of cannabinoids unfortunately face several hurdles that have in general hindered their abilities to make breakthroughs.
In the United States, cannabinoids were at one point acknowledged for their medicinal properties and even considered a common component in the country’s pharmacological industry. In 1937, despite objections by the American Medical Association, Congress passed a law that federally restricted the distribution of cannabinoids. Then, in 1970, cannabis and some of its cannabinoids were classified as Schedule I substances under the Controlled Substances Act. This legal status still applies today and creates obstacles that have hindered the volume of clinical research and handicapped the collection of data on effectiveness, dosage, safety, and delivery systems.
Because of the way cannabis is scheduled under the Controlled Substances Act, researchers interested in studying cannabinoids must navigate complex regulatory hoops. They must first obtain a Schedule I research registration from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and have their study approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Researchers also typically must get approval from their respective institution, typically a university or research center. In some states, a Schedule I research license from a state-controlled drug agency is also required.
After receiving the required approvals, researchers are as of now forced to obtain their cannabinoid materials from a single source — the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The NIDA, which grows limited varieties on a single plot at the University of Mississippi, is the sole source of research-grade cannabis that is federally lawful. The institute can refuse to supply researchers if they believe a study is lacking in scientific value, and according to Popular Science, has historically declined to supply investigators looking to demonstrate the efficacy of cannabinoids for conditions or symptoms.
If researchers are able to get all regulatory requirements are in place, they then must obtain funding for their cannabinoid study. Investors have in the past been hesitant to fund studies into cannabinoids, due to the misguided social stigma sometimes attached to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the well-known psychoactive compound. Additionally, studies on cannabinoids are typically more expensive, as researchers must follow stringent DEA regulations for purchasing, storing, documenting, and disposing of any cannabinoid substances. For example, products must be kept in an alarm-controlled laboratory and in a locked container physically attached to the floor or wall.
These additional requirements and hurdles increase the operational costs of research projects and can delay the start date of studies by three to six months. The catch-22 is that for cannabis to be rescheduled or the FDA to acknowledge the medicinal properties of cannabinoids, a greater volume of clinical research demonstrating their efficacy and safety are required.
Recent developments suggest that the regulatory stronghold on researchers may be loosening. Last year, the DEA announced that it would allow scientists to buy cannabinoid material from growers besides the University of Mississippi. However, since opening up an application process for producers, the government has yet to award any a license.
Despite the hurdles and challenges, medical research has shown cannabinoids hold true promise. The beneficial effects of cannabinoids have been scientifically explored for many years, and findings suggest that cannabinoids show potential therapeutic promise for alleviating nausea, spasms, and pain, and for treating conditions like epilepsy, arthritis, anxiety, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injuries, and even some cancers.
Learn about the cannabinoid research that has been done by visiting our education page.