(Thinkstock/Getty Images)

Federal ban on marijuana has created ‘regulatory vacuum’ says new study

U.S. medical marijuana laws are like snowflakes — no two state regulatory regimes are exactly alike.

A “regulatory vacuum” has resulted from marijuana’s Schedule I status, according to a new study conducted by Temple University researchers. While the resulting “patchwork of regulatory strategies” is hindering full understanding of the potential benefits and harms of cannabis for medical uses, it could provide a chance to redefine federal oversight of research efforts, according to the study.

“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’s Center for Public Health Law Research. “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.”

Disparate state medical marijuana laws should be considered a call to action for the federal government to weigh in on the topic beyond the Controlled Substances Act, he added.

Burris and the researchers behind “Mapping medical marijuana,” published Tuesday in the journal Addiction, delved into regulations of the states that have legalized medical marijuana. The study details the varying approaches in critical aspects such as qualifying conditions, patient registration, privacy and civil rights concerns, testing, permitting and labeling.

The medical marijuana laws in 27 states and Washington, D.C. were examined in the study conducted earlier this year. The researchers noted:

  • 27 specify qualifying diseases, which vary
  • 26 protect patient privacy
  • 18 have mandatory product safety testing
  • 14 have protections in place to prevent discrimination
  • Eight prohibit use in parks
  • Five prohibit use on beaches
  • One (Montana) bans use at places of worship

“In this new area of health policy, states are again serving as ‘laboratories of democracy,’ but scientists evaluating these laws (have) focused on spillover effects of (medical marijuana) on recreational use and its harms, rather than on the ability of states to effectively regulate marijuana as a medicine,” researchers wrote. “There is tremendous interest in understanding the impact of these laws on the community.”

The state data, mined as of Feb. 1, 2017, and going back to the start of 2014, were used to compare state laws with each other as well as to the traditional federal approach for medicine regulation.

What researchers found was a “patchwork of regulatory strategies” not uniformly consistent with the approaches usually taken by the federal government.

“Serious deficiencies in this state efforts would add to the rationale for federal rescheduling and the integration of marijuana into the standard controlled substances and pharmaceutical regulatory framework,” Burris wrote in the report. “If, on the other hand, states are able to successfully manage the safe use and distribution of a new pharmaceutical product, critics of federal oversight of the pharmaceutical industry would have an interesting case study to ponder.”

This could be an opportunity for the states to reinvent the current U.S. Food and Drug Administration paradigm, Burris said, noting that marijuana’s lauded euphoria- or relaxing-inducing attributes might not fit perfectly into the square peg of the FDA processes that carbon copy chemical compositions.

The paper is a friendly reminder that “pretending this isn’t happening is not a productive way to move forward,” Burris said.

“It’s safe to say we’re going to be in a period of negotiation” with state laws and whatever federal approach emerges, he added. “Negotiation is fine. Just putting our heads in the sand is bad.”

The research project was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Public Health Law Research and Policy Surveillance Programs of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.