Only one facility in the nation, at the University of Mississippi, has federal approval to grow marijuana for research, creating a bottleneck even as military veterans press for studies into a drug many believe can help relieve their PTSD symptoms.
Federal entities such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) _ the last oversees research _ keep a close eye on the study of marijuana, a drug they deem dangerous. Anyone who wants to grow marijuana for researchers must first get permission from the DEA, which falls under the Department of Justice.
During the last summer of Barack Obama’s presidency, the DEA said it wanted to register more marijuana grow labs "to foster research."
“This change should provide researchers with a more varied and robust supply of marijuana,” the DEA said in a statement then. “This change illustrates DEA’s commitment to working together with the FDA and NIDA to facilitate research concerning marijuana and its components.”
Before any new research grows could be licensed, Donald Trump succeeded Obama and soon after appointed as his head of the Justice Department Jeff Sessions. Sessions has made no secret of his skepticism about marijuana. Soon after taking over Justice, Attorney General Sessions reaffirmed that federal law enforcement would continue to treat marijuana as an illegal substance. Obama’s administration had taken a more hands-off approach as state after state, my home of Colorado among the pioneers, legalized marijuana.
Sean Kiernan, a veteran who heads the lobby group Weed for Warriors Project, was moved to write to Sessions in April of 2017.
“I believe you are a good man Mr. Sessions,” Kiernan wrote. “Please stand with us and fight for the additional scientific research to ensure we all do our best to help those who have sacrificed so much.”
Earlier this year I asked the Department of Justice whether any progress was being made in licensing research marijuana growers. I was referred to comments Sessions had made last October when the topic came up during a U.S. Senate hearing. He told lawmakers he believed 26 potential suppliers had applied for DEA approval.
"I think it would be healthy to have some more competition in the supply, but … I'm sure we don't need 26 new suppliers," he said, noting time and money would have to be spent supervising new growers.
This week, I checked in with a marijuana researcher who applied for federal permission to grow research weed soon after the Obama administration opened that door. That researcher and others were still awaiting approval.
Sessions may seem set in his opposition to marijuana. But minds have been changed. Earlier this month, former Speaker of the House John Boehner joined the board of Acreage Holdings, which owns marijuana grows, processing and dispensary businesses in several states. As The Washington Post reported, Boehner once wrote to a constituent that he was against removing marijuana from what is known as Schedule I listing, for illegal drugs seen as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Other Schedule I drugs include heroin and ecstasy.
In a tweet announcing what some saw as his stunning move to join a marijuana company, Boehner said his “thinking on cannabis has evolved. I’m convinced de-scheduling the drug is needed so we can do research, help our veterans and reverse the opioid epidemic ravaging our communities.” A spokesperson told the Post Boehner changed his mind after studying the issue closely.
The clamor to try something new like marijuana is driven by frustration with old remedies. Researchers from the University of Michigan and New York University, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine in June of 2017, noted that “despite decades of intensive research, finding an effective treatment for a patient with PTSD is challenging. Responses to treatment differ substantially between individual patients, nonresponse rates are high across treatment approaches, and treatment most often attenuates PTSD symptoms without inducing remission.”
Dr. Israel Liberzon of Michigan and his New York colleagues Arieh Shalev and Charles Marmar went on to counsel clinicians to “acknowledge that approved therapies leave many patients unwell, that a patient may have a preferential response to one of many interventions, and that many patients with PTSD receive off-label medications and might be over medicated.”
There’s no guarantee marijuana will be a magic bullet. Peter Cogan, a pharmacy professor at Denver’s Regis University, wrote in a recent Denver Post op-ed that “the bulk of the research into the medicinal use of cannabis is not very compelling.”
“Families seeking cannabis treatments for any given condition often are beset by desperation and vulnerability,” Cogan continued. “The Colorado Legislature has an obligation to ensure that these patients understand the risks and benefits, especially if businesses are going to capitalize upon _ and the state draw taxes from _ their hopes for an effective treatment.”
Dr. Marcel Bonn-Miller is a nationally known specialist on PTSD and veterans who has done extensive research on marijuana. He told me that studies have shown high concentrations of the cannabinoid compound in marijuana known as THC can be addictive and may increase anxiety and sleep trouble. Bonn-Miller says CBD – another cannabinoid, but one that won't get you high – is less risky and may help with conditions such as inflammation, anxiety and sleep problems, which could be important for veterans with traumatic brain injury.
"It's really complex," Bonn-Miller says. "A lot of researchers are trying to figure this out to help inform the discussion."
For my book on veterans, Home of the Brave, I interviewed Dr. Sue Sisley. She is an Arizona psychiatrist who has been given FDA approval to study whether marijuana is a safe and effective treatment for PTSD. Sisley has spoken to many veterans who tell her marijuana helps them.
“I believe my patients when they say they’re better” because of marijuana, Sisley told me. But“I still don’t believe anything until it’s gone through the rigors of a randomized, controlled study. We need objective data.”