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Even with marijuana reclassification, this researcher says the market is way ahead of the science

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s move to reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous drug could have big implications across the country — including in research into the drug. For decades, cannabis research has been a challenge because it has been classified as a Schedule I drug at a federal level — alongside drugs like LSD and ecstasy. 

Tory Spindle researches marijuana, and he says, even if it’s reclassified to Schedule III, he’s not sure how big of an impact it will have on research like his. 

Spindle is an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University. He spoke more about it with The Show's Lauren Gilger. 

Full conversation

LAUREN GILGER: Tell us what this means from your point of view as somebody who studies and researches cannabis.

TORY SPINDLE: Sure. So I think the short answer, which is perhaps disappointing, is we don't really know what it's gonna result in at this point. I think in the short term, what's probably gonna happen is our research will get a little bit faster. So currently, we have to, for every clinical study that involves cannabis, we have three regulatory bodies. We have to go through our local institutional review board, the FDA and the DEA, and the DEA is the last thing we do. And so I have several studies right now that are almost all the way approved except for they're stuck at the DEA. So if we didn't have, if it was Schedule III right now, those studies would probably be up and running.

So it probably will accelerate research in the short term. How it's going to play out in the long term, will it increase access to other products that we can't currently study all these other questions people are really interested in, I don't think anyone really knows the answer to that.

GILGER: So let's talk a little bit about the the clinical trial part of this. That has been a big barrier in terms of the Schedule I classification of cannabis for a long time, right? What would the difference be here?

SPINDLE: So it is pretty challenging to give research participants a schedule one drug to take home with them for a study. We've done it before in our studies, but it's just a lot of red tape. And so in theory, if cannabis was Schedule III, it might be easier to do those kinds of randomized trials where participants get a study drug and they take it home with them for weeks and weeks and you study them over time. So I could see that being one positive effect of this is that that type of research design would be probably easier to implement.

GILGER: There's also a lot of questions and, and there have been in the past challenges as to where you can get cannabis for studies, right? Like it comes from one place. Is that right?

SPINDLE: Yeah. So it's kind of complicated because all the cannabis that you would go out as a consumer and buy at a dispensary is federally illegal because cannabis is illegal at the federal level. So as researchers, we're not able to use our federal grant dollars to purchase any of that cannabis and use it in our research. So we have to get it from places that are designated by the DEA, that are granted permission to grow cannabis and distribute it for research purposes. And for the past nearly 50 years, there's been one place that you can get cannabis from, which is at the University of Mississippi. And in the last four or five years or so, the DEA started to grant permission for other sites to be able to grow and distribute cannabis, but it really hasn't resulted in more access necessarily because a lot of these sites are not necessarily supplying cannabis research at this time.

And it gets complicated, too, because as I mentioned, the FDA is also involved in approving any cannabis protocols. And so the FDA has their own standards that they want to see in terms of how cannabis is grown and cultivated, that these other entities that are approved by the DEA don't necessarily meet. So it kind of gets complicated because DEA approval doesn't necessarily mean they're going to make cannabis that's suitable for human consumption in the eyes of the, the FDA, which is important ultimately for research

GILGER: Very complicated, as you said, as you said. So I mean, I wonder, though, even if, even if this is, this becomes easier with reclassification, has the kind of private industry side of this moved so quickly in terms of cannabis, oils, vaping, cannabis edibles, like all of the different ways in which you can now ingest THC How does research keep up with that?

SPINDLE: The short answer is that we can't, it's going way too fast at this point and like I said, you know, because you can only buy cannabis as researchers from very select few places. We don't have access to many of the products that people get. You know, there's not really a place that we can get gummies and cannabis drinks and all these things. And so in, in my research, the workaround is we've had, you know, experts come in and train our pharmacists how to make it in house or, you know, all these different formulations. And so we, we have workarounds. It's just that it's not practical to do, you know, for every site to do that. And we're, we're still limited in the things we can, we can study and we're ultimately never going to get to the point where we're actually studying every single thing that's representative of, of what's on the market. There's just too much stuff and it's, it's just the industry so far outpaced the science at this point.

GILGER: Yeah. So that's concerning, right? Like, as a scientist who studies this, I'm sure, like, do you think that, that consumers should be more aware of that, that the industry has moved so quickly, we do not know the implications of a lot of this if you use it.

SPINDLE: Yeah, I think absolutely, that's a big concern of mine. And then the other part of it is that all of the marketing you see from, from companies, you know, this is indica versus sativa that has this terpene, that terpene. A lot of the stuff is just anecdotal evidence at this point. A lot of the folklore around what constituents do what of the cannabis plant. And we don't have great, you know, rigorous scientific research to support or refute many of the claims. And it, and it kind of comes down to, we don't have access to the products to be able to, to do the research. So it's, it's pretty concerning to me. And then you also consider all the the therapeutic claims made about cannabis products and different cannabis constituents, many of which have not been properly studied to know for certain that those are, those are valid claims.

GILGER: Yeah, it's interesting because I just don't know if there's any other industry that's developed in this way, usually it's the other way around, right?

SPINDLE: Yeah, exactly. So, this is, you know, the only drug really to my knowledge that people are using it. It's out there in the world, people are using it for all kinds of different therapeutic conditions. And now as scientists, we're playing catch up and figuring out well, what therapeutic conditions is it actually effective for? So it's very backwards from, from how things are done.

And the same could be said for rescheduling it to Schedule III. Typically a Schedule III drug is something that has an approved recognized therapeutic benefit. And at this time FDA hasn't approved cannabis for any therapeutic indications. So when it becomes Schedule III, I think that's kind of a question in a lot of people's minds is, well, what therapeutic indications are gonna be associated with cannabis if any? Is it just Schedule III? But there's no, you know, actual therapeutic claim tied to the schedule three status. So that, that's kind of an interesting nuance of all of this, too.

GILGER: That is interesting. So one thing I wanted to ask you about before I let you go is, is this new data that came out that shows that more people in the U.S. use cannabis daily now than, than alcohol daily, 18 million people, right? I wonder with that kind of use in the country, do you think it's even more important that we reclassify this kind of stuff, start at least to take the step so that we can study this more effectively?

SPINDLE: Yes, certainly. I think that there needs to be measures to make the research easier to do. I don't know if, you know, reclassifying to Schedule III is gonna be what needs to get us there. But certainly there needs to be an overhaul of what products we have access to as researchers, how quickly we're able to do the studies, 18 million people using cannabis. Yeah, that's a staggering number. So this many people using a drug, we need to know more about it.

Point blank, you know, driving is a good example where, you know, all these states have legalized cannabis and there's currently no effective methods to detect people who are impaired from cannabis at the roadside. Well, a lot of this research needed to happen decades ago, and I think access to products has been a big issue and then just, you know, the, the red tape of having it be Schedule I status. So I think over time it will change. But generally these things take time and you know, even with this reclassification, I think that any real benefits we see probably will take, take a little while to, to flush out.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Spindle’s first name.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.