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Dr. Sue Sisley does not smoke weed. As a researcher and professor at the University of Arizona, Sisley additionally works as a psychiatrist and physician for veterans grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder. During her time at the lab, Sisley has exhausted the options available to her by way of legal treatments for PTSD. Along the way, she's discovered that the only medicine that seems to help dampen her patients' demons is marijuana. Ever since, Sisley has tried her damnedest to procure some research-grade cannabis.
But she's failed and that's not surprising.
Here's the rub: When is it easier to get, say, LSD than weed? When you’re a scientist. Indeed, it’s easier to get LSD, MDMA, and any other Schedule 1 drug from the US government for scientific research than it is to get marijuana. Why? To obtain LSD and MDMA, for example, you only have to go through the Food and Drug Administration, an Institutional Review Board, and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
On the other hand, to get cannabis that is federally approved for research, you have to make it over those same three regulatory hurdles but also get approval from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). And NIDA, historically, doesn't like sharing. They've got the monopoly on medical weed.
I tried to get in touch with NIDA. They essentially just referred me to their website, which cites the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (UN, 1961) as the reason they maintain sole production of research-grade flower. As the UN protocol states: “the medical use of narcotic drugs continues to be indispensable for the relief of pain and suffering.” NIDA's site adds: “To date, 18 applications to obtain marijuana for medical research have been submitted by potential researchers not funded by National Institutes of Health; of those, 15 received approval.”
Two of those applications were from MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. Sisley has teamed up with MAPS, who wants to develop a prescription medicine version of the plant form of marijuana. With MAPS and Sisley working together, they’ve been able to get through every hoop of the process of getting their study on marijuana and PTSD done, except for getting the marijuana from the NIDA.
“The only reason that this extra review process exists is to prevent research that could make marijuana into a federally approved prescription medicine,” Brad Burge of MAPS tells me.
Unravel NIDA's legal red tape in Motherboard's doc, High Country.
“There are many researchers obtaining NIDA marijuana for research into isolated and synthetic cannabinoids as well as non-smoking delivery systems,” Burge adds. However, they’re looking into how it can be ingested naturally, as something you smoke:
We would like to know more about the relative safety and effectiveness of smoking versus vaporization, whether different strains of marijuana with varying ratios of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) have different effects on PTSD symptoms, and whether whole plant marijuana can safely and effectively reduce PTSD symptoms in US veterans with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD.
PTSD, of course, is characterized by extreme anxiety, often the result of a physical or psychological injury. When confronted with a potentially deadly situation, we feel fear, and the fight or flight response kicks in. PTSD arises when that response is damaged, and the patient feels stressed or frightened even when he or she is no longer in danger.
The condition disproportionately affects soldiers who have fought in war zones. They develop the conditions from being in an array of dangerous situations, and they return home emotionally crippled. US Veteran’s Affairs claims that today, almost 300,000 veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD, although the number is likely much higher due to lack of diagnosis.
According to Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, the respected Israeli neuroscientist who discovered THC, marijuana could help stimulate “memory extinction.” You’re going through slow memory extinction right now, no matter what, but marijuana helps speed up the process in certain ways, Mechoulam says. He argues memory extinction could separate memories from external stimuli, like loud noises or bright lights triggering a frightful memory. Weed could help cure PTSD, as we've reported. But you’ll also need to seriously consider counseling.
MAPS and Sisley want to do their own research, but they’re waiting for their second application with the NIDA to get a response. MAPS has been trying to do extensive marijuana studies for 14 years, and the PTSD-related study was rejected in 2011, but they are waiting to hear back about a revised submission they sent in October 2013.
The problem with referencing the Single Convention, according to Burge, is that it’s a voluntary agreement that is only enforced when it’s convenient for the US to reference it. He claims that the reason the United States needs to back out of it, and let other people here grow research marijuana, is that the convention claims you should have one supplier if they can meet demand, and they’re not meeting demand. MAPS wants to set up their own grow for research, but NIDA won’t allow it.
In a 2001 joint study, MAPS and NORML were able to show that vaporized marijuana was better in terms of carbon monoxide than smoked marijuana, which is helpful in promoting harm reduction.
“We used NIDA marijuana from one of the medical marijuana patients receiving NIDA marijuana on a compassionate basis who sent her marijuana to a DEA-licensed lab conducting our medical marijuana potency study that tested higher potency marijuana from medical marijuana dispensaries," MAPS founder and president told me. "The DEA-licensed testing lab sent the NIDA pot and some leftover higher potency marijuana from medical marijuana dispensaries to the different lab that conducted the vaporizer study.”
Until NIDA gives them some weed to study, they won’t be able to provide any federally recognized research in hopes of understanding the medicinal values of it and the effects of each smoking method on treating PTSD. Scientists and doctors, especially outside the United States, have shown that there are promising results for marijuana’s treatment of PTSD. Sisley and MAPS want to prove to the government that this can change people’s lives and prevent a veteran’s suicide every 65 minutes. If anything, it's part and parcel of unlocking what weed might mean for the future of sustainable healthcare.