A new study suggests that conflicting federal and state cannabis laws have prevented researchers from fully investigating how to best apply the substance medically.
Researchers from Temple University and the RAND Drug Policy Research Center have found that cannabis’ Schedule I status has created a “patchwork of regulatory strategies” that hinder oversight and research efforts to understand the substance’s potential benefits.
“If we’re serious about marijuana as a therapy, as a drug, if we mean it’s medicine, then we need to do research on it. We need to do trials,” said Scott Burris, director of Temple Center for Public Health Law Research and the study’s lead author. “Until the federal government drops it from Schedule I, we’re going to be [researching] this with our scientific and regulatory hands tied behind our back.”
While marijuana is prohibited federally, more than half of U.S. states and Washington D.C. have passed medical marijuana laws. In the study, published recently in the journal Addiction, researchers used data going back to 2014 to explore the varying regulations within each of the states that have legalized medical marijuana.
Burris and his team of investigators concluded that federal prohibition has created a “regulatory vacuum,” in which there’s no one responsible for ensuring safety and effectiveness. States are enacting their own regulations in an effort to protect the public as cannabis is being increasingly used therapeutically.
“In the absence of the usual federal regulations to protect patients, ensure product safety and prevent diversion and abuse, states have been left to their own devices,” said Burris.
The regulatory strategies used by the states, the study found, are not uniformly consistent. Key findings in the study include:
- All states with medical marijuana laws specify qualifying diseases, but these diseases vary by state.
- 14 states protect medical marijuana patients from discrimination
- Laws regarding packaging and labeling vary widely between states. Only 18 states make product safety testing mandatory.
- Eight states prohibit cannabis use in parks. Five prohibit its use on beaches. One bans its use at places of worship.
- 25 states regulate dispensaries, but just 21 impose restrictions on where a dispensary can be located.
These laws, which disparately regulate patient registration, civil rights, product safety and labeling, and dispensaries, prevents effective oversight on the potential benefits and harms of cannabis for medical use, the researchers claim.
“In this area of health policy, as in others, states are serving as ‘laboratories of democracy,’ but the exercise is only productive if researchers step up to rigorously evaluate the impact of state innovation,” Burris said. “We largely have no idea about how well these laws protect patients and the public.”
“The federal ban in the USA on marijuana has resulted in a patchwork of regulatory strategies that are not uniformly consistent with the approach usually taken by the Federal government and whose effectiveness remains unknown,” the study concludes.
The full study, “Mapping medical marijuana: State laws regulating patients, product safety, supply chains and dispensaries, 2017,” is available through Wiley Online Library.