Despite the wave of marijuana legalization slowly spreading across the United States, federal prohibition still prevents substantive medical research. Until cannabis is federally legal, two things will continue to happen: Scientists based in the U.S. won’t have access to clean, regulated cannabis on which to perform any studies. And the regulatory agencies who support and validate medical research in the States can’t recognize cannabis as a medical option.
While self-experimentation has become a cultural rite of passage for marijuana, it’s a problematic situation for serious medical patients. More and more Americans are finding relief from a range of medical conditions with cannabis.
But patients with debilitating and life-threatening diseases along with their doctors desperately want to see substantive research. This means peer-reviewed clinical studies, not just small sample, self-reported data or anecdotal stories.
In the absence of FDA-backed studies, many other countries have taken up the mantle, particularly Israel, Canada, Australia, Greece and Spain. Researchers in these countries are helping to progress the scientific understanding of cannabis as medicine for the international community.
Israel is considered by many to be the world leader in cannabis research. Knowledge of the plant is rooted in the nation’s cultural history, where it’s been reputedly used for thousands of years.
In 1964, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam isolated the first cannabinoid, which we know well today as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Twenty years later, Dr. Mechoulam was the first researcher to identify the endocannabinoid system (ECS), a crucial development in understanding how cannabis interacts with the brain and the body.
Often referred to as the father of marijuana research, Dr. Mechoulam is a Holocaust survivor who immigrated to Israel from Bulgaria. He undertook several of his key studies on marijuana while working as a researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot.
While there, Dr. Mechoulam procured hashish from Israel’s Ministry of Health to use in his studies. Continuing his career at Hebrew University, where less stringent bureaucratic regulations allowed research to flourish, Dr. Mechoulam has led the world in marijuana research for over 50 years.
In 2015, filmmaker Zach Klein partnered with the Spanish research foundation, Fundación CANNA, to make The Scientist, a documentary about Dr. Mechoulam’s life work. In describing the making of The Scientist on their website, the filmmakers write, “Mechoulam has been investigating this compound [cannabis] longer and more thoughtfully than any other scientist. He has unearthed cannabis’s role in treating seizure disorders, schizophrenia and PTSD.”
Dr. Mechoulam’s early and important research helped set a precedent for Israel’s progressive regulatory climate for medicinal marijuana research. While recreational marijuana is still illegal in Israel, it was one of the first countries to legalize medicinal-use cannabis in the early 1990s.
Today, 27% of Israelis are marijuana consumers—the highest ratio of users in the world. And registered patients use government-sanctioned cannabis to treat PTSD, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, cancer and chronic pain.
Tikun Olam is a Hebrew phrase that translates to “repair the world.” It’s also the name of an Israeli cannabis brand established as a nonprofit in 2005. Today, Tikun Olam is a global leader in research and development and has developed 230 different cannabis strains to treat specific symptoms and diseases. Claiming to be the only scientifically backed cannabis brand in the United States, the company’s U.S. website is a useful resource for published studies on consuming cannabis for a number of chronic diseases.
After federally legalizing medical marijuana in 2001, Canada is widely expected to legalize recreational use marijuana some time this year. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on the promise of cannabis legalization, and despite recent setbacks from conservative factions of the Canadian government, investors and businesses are gearing up for a robust new industry.
According to a study published in the Canadian Family Physician Journal in February, a group of Canadian doctors found that research on medicinal cannabis is profoundly lacking. In the article, Canadian Family Physician Journal editors write, “Although cannabinoids have been promoted for an array of medical conditions, the evidence base is challenged by bias and a lack of high-level research. Two large evidence synopses suggested that only three conditions have an adequate volume of evidence to inform prescribing recommendations: chronic pain, nausea and vomiting, and spasticity.”
In the same issue, an editorial piece titled, “The Cannabis Paradox” by Roger Ladouceur, argues that the rising prevalence of cannabis consumption in Canada—with an estimated 3.4 million consumers—calls for further research to be conducted. Meanwhile, Health Canada data report that Canadians registering for medical marijuana have tripled every year since 2015.
In a positive step, earlier this year the Canadian government pledged $1.4 million towards research into the health and societal impacts of marijuana legalization. At least the government acknowledges the importance of sound scientific data when it comes to cannabis and how it impacts its citizens.
In 2017, the Australian government announced that it would award the Australian Centre for Cannabinoid Clinical and Research Excellence (ACRE) a 2.5 million dollar grant to coordinate research on medical cannabis. The first federally funded research institution on medical cannabis in Australia, ACRE has brought together a team of over 20 leading researchers in the fields of pharmacology, clinical psychology, plant science, public health and economics to lead the center.
In a story published by Australia’s ABC News, ACRE’s head doctor, Professor Nadia Solowij, explains the need for research in a nation where cannabis use is surging—but without regulatory process or medical supervision. In addition to fears over misuse, medical patients who benefit from cannabis have faced prohibitively high costs; many are forced to use the black market for affordable options.
Despite only having legalized medical marijuana in 2016, Australia’s top officials hope to make the medical cannabis industry a robust sector of the nation’s economy. In January, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stated that Australia would be the world’s leading supplier of the drug. Yet, as reported by The New York Times in February, only 350 Australians have been approved to use cannabis legally.
Lindsay Carter is a 19-year-old Australian who has suffered from epilepsy since age 14; recently, Lindsay was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Lindsay and his mother have taken four international trips to obtain the cannabis oil that Lindsay vaporizes. This is the only medication that provides relief from his severe symptoms. Within the current medical model, obtaining legal cannabis within Australia would cost the Carter family nearly $30,000 a year—if even available.
Australian officials hope that the progress of medical research will match a reduction in red tape for Australian patients who want to obtain cannabis as medicine. In the coming months and years, look to ACRE and Medical Cannabis Research Australia for key medical studies on the various uses of medical cannabis.
There are rumblings from the U.S. government about national cannabis legalization. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA13) and Ro Khanna (D-CA17) introduced companion bills into the House and Senate called the Marijuana Justice Act, which would legalize cannabis throughout the country.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) also announced he would introduce his own bill that would decriminalize cannabis on the federal level. Not only would such a change have repercussions for our criminal justice system, but it would also hopefully free up the many scientists who want to study the plant but can’t because it’s federally illegal. With more solid science behind the plant’s uses, we can only predict that more people will finally be able to access its incredible healing powers.
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