November 24, 2014

marijuanaTwenty-three states have currently legalized medical marijuana, but quality research on the medical benefits of the drug continues to face delays. The internet is filled with compelling stories of individuals whose lives were dramatically enhanced with the use of medical marijuana, for conditions ranging from epilepsy, PTSD, and autism, but there continues to be a lack of quality, scientific, double-blind studies backing up these claims.

What is causing this delay? It all comes down to the federal government. Marijuana is still illegal on the federal level, in spite of the changes in various state laws, which makes it difficult to obtain for research purposes.

Rick Doblin, PhD, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has been waiting for years to obtain the necessary strains needed for research studies that have already obtained FDA approval. “There’s been enormous government obstruction,” he says. “We had two medical marijuana studies approved by the FDA, one looking at AIDS wasting and the other on migraines, that were killed because NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) refused to sell us the marijuana. Now we have another study on PTSD in vets that was approved by the FDA about four years ago and NIDA still can’t say when they’ll be able to get us the strains we need or how much they will cost. We could get them right now in Colorado or California and other states but the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) refuses to authorize any other growers. State-legal marijuana is still illegal federally.”

This leads to a catch-22 in which federal restrictions cannot be lifted without randomized, placebo-controlled studies, which cannot be completed without access to the marijuana in the first place.

The lack of quality studies also put individual families in a bind. Karen Echols is a parent who has publicly advocated for medical marijuana after it substantially decreased aggressive behaviors in her son, Alex, who is diagnosed with autism. Her family is still faced hurdles, in spite of living in Oregon, where medical marijuana is legal. She says, “The problem in Oregon at the time was that there were no dispensaries. You were given your card and left to your own devices. We just had the raw plant, and then we had to figure out how to make it into an actual medicine. In some other states, you can go into a dispensary and get advice about strains and preparations and dosing. But it was complete guesswork on our part.”

Clearly these studies are needed. Doctors need to understand which strains are effective for particular medical conditions, which doses are optimal, and which populations they can serve. Leaving parents to their own device regarding offering medication of any kind to their children is dangerous and unethical.

This research is needed, so the medical community can determine for once and for all whether or not medical marijuana is truly effective. Until the federal restrictions are lifted, this seems unlikely.

About the author 

Laurel Joss

Laurel Joss is a freelance writer with a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education. She worked as an RDI® Program Certified Consultant and has published articles in Autism Spectrum Quarterly and on her blog She is a mother to two children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. You can also follow her on and

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