The Uncertain Impact Cannabis Has on COVID-19 Highlights Need for Rescheduling

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The Schedule I status of marijuana stunts America’s ability to contribute to worldwide cannabis research. In light of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, these limitations became that much more apparent. 

Today, much of the world remains in the dark when it comes to understanding cannabis, according to Dr. Laszlo Mechtler, Medical Director of the Dent Neurological Institute in Buffalo, NY. Dr. Mechtler told High Times that most people, at best, have a rudimentary understanding of the plant and its benefits. 

The medical professional, whose roles include chief of neuro-oncology at the Roswell Park Center Institute, credits media outlets like High Times for disseminating information. However, he said that a lack of research prohibits a robust flow of information to the public.

”It is my opinion that much of this lack of understanding stems from the lack of research that has been done on cannabis, which is rooted in marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I controlled substance by the federal government,” said Dr. Mechtler. 

The Impact of Marijuana’s Schedule I Classification

The doctor’s sentiment is shared by much of the cannabis community, and those seeking to legitimize a burgeoning industry and medication further. 

Dr. Nimesh Patel, a co-founder of Redbird Bioscience, delved into the limitations created by marijuana’s Schedule I status. “The schedule 1 status is what keeps the plant from being studied by numerous scientific centers and conducting numerous research trials all which take time and access to high-quality cannabis plants and products.” 

Dr. Patel noted that the U.S. does allow limited research with cannabis sourced from a government-approved site at the University of Mississippi. However, in recent years, reports of subpar samples, including moldy cannabis, ruin the prospects of research. In 2019, efforts to expand the program and its quality were announced.

“One cannot conduct research trials unless the product is of the highest quality,” said Dr. Patel of ongoing concerns over government-approved samples. “There are numerous different strains of cannabis with each with different medicinal benefits and need to be used appropriately for specific conditions in structured research protocols.”

While severely hampering American cannabis research, this circumstance has been the case for years. However, in doing so, the U.S. has slowed down the understanding of marijuana. The lack of understanding was only amplified when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. 

The Effects of Cannabis on COVID-19 Stalled in America

American researchers have had little success at attempting to study the effects cannabis and COVID-19 have on one another. Dr. Laszlo Mechtler stated that “The same restrictions that hamper general cannabis research extend to cannabis research on COVID-19.”

While limited, research is expanding in the U.S. An example may be found in Pennsylvania, where Teddy Scott, CEO of dispensary Ethos Cannabis, and his company use state legislation to partner with certified medical schools to conduct research. 

Partnering with Thomas Jefferson University in June 2020, Scott told High Times that Ethos is able to conduct “real research” with patients. However, the program’s recent launch prevents it from contributing to COVID-19 studies with the university not aligning any research towards the virus at this time. 

Insights may still come from the U.S., including the University of Miami, where research has been underway, assessing the effects COVID-19 has on medical cannabis patients. However, nations like Canada appear to be leading the way with trial drug studies, including one May study which concluded that CBD may aid in blocking cells that enter from the virus. 

That said, additional research is required across the board before any conclusive findings can be made. 

A Lack of Research Clouds Federal Lawmaking

One of the several reasons why cannabis legislation hasn’t advanced further on Capitol Hill is an ongoing lack of information to reach members of Congress. Be it their own reluctance or a lack of lab-approved evidence, in either case, many federal lawmakers remain in the dark on the benefits of cannabis—likely preventing any substantive reform from passing under the current circumstances. 

Attempts to improve understanding have been underway for years. All too often, the measures fail to pass. In 2015, the House attempted to pass legislation allowing the National Institutes of Health to study the health benefits and risks associated with medical marijuana. Despite both pro- and anti-medical cannabis supporters urging its passing, the bill failed to clear the then-Conservative House Rules Committee.

In the years since, publications such as Bloomberg, have called for additional research and data in hopes of reaching Congress. In the years since scores of studies have advanced the understanding of the plant’s efficacy in treating a range of medical conditions. Yet, conclusive data is still lagging. With little knowledge via American lab studies, researchers are left to play behind the 8-ball when asked to make definitive statements concerning cannabis consumption and more niche areas of study, such as COVID-19. 

A lack of definitive findings also helps continue justifying any federal pushback on reform, said Redbird’s Dr. Patel. “This restriction on U.S. research likely does and should influence lawmakers when assessing the schedule category for cannabis.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently balked cannabis industry diversity and inclusion studies put forth in the HEROES Act that passed the House. In doing so, the Senator squashed any hope of discovering what impact that market has had on those it intended to benefit. 

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The problem extends across the aisle, as exemplified by Senator Dick Durbin. In 2019, Durbin was caught criticizing his home state of Illinois’ medical cannabis program’s qualifying conditions

With seemingly all parties wanting further clarity on cannabis, advocates and enthusiasts alike can only hope a schedule change, or some other allowances, come to fruition soon enough. However, many with experience on Capitol Hill do not see the needle moving much while the Senate Majority Leader remains in power. 

Despite a lack of studies coming from the U.S., respondents to this article highlighted countries, including Canada, Israel, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Australia, Germany and many others helping advance the understanding of marijuana. That said, much more is left to be clarified.

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