For decades, the federal government has trapped marijuana proponents in a bureaucratic Catch-22. The message: “You can’t research the drug because we won’t allow you to grow it, and you can’t prove its benefits because there is little research.”
That makes the creation of the Center for Cannabis Policy, Research and Outreach at Washington State University particularly noteworthy. Approved by university officials in May, the center reflects changing attitudes toward cannabis throughout the country.
In 2012, Washington became one of the first two states — along with Colorado — to approve recreational use of marijuana by adults. Initiative 502 passed with 56 percent of the vote (in Clark County, 49.7 percent of voters approved). Now, 17 states have approved recreational use, and 36 states have provisions allowing for medical marijuana.
In our state, marijuana sales exceed $2 billion a year. Tax revenue is expected to be about $500 million for each of the next two years, and 58 percent of that will be directed to health care initiatives. In 2020, Clark County lifted a moratorium on marijuana businesses in unincorporated areas, which had been in place since legalization.
Of course, tax revenue is not an adequate reason for approval. Many reasonable people will argue that marijuana is a social ill with few benefits; the problem is that there long has been little evidence to support arguments on either side of the issue.
Since 1968, a small lab at the University of Mississippi has been the only facility licensed by the Drug Enforcement Administration to grow research-grade marijuana. That is used for the study of the drug’s value in treating conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder or chronic pain.
Meanwhile, cannabis remains on the federal list of Schedule I drugs, lumping it into a category that includes heroin and LSD. A Schedule I listing erects barriers that limit research of a substance. Cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl — to use three examples — are Schedule II drugs, meaning that drugs widely considered to be more harmful than marijuana face fewer restrictions.
Various legislation in Congress over the years has sought to reclassify marijuana, to no avail. But DEA officials last year agreed on a change that would allow facilities to grow marijuana for research purposes, and last month they announced that several manufacturers had been approved.
Overall, the United States is finally taking a realistic approach to marijuana. Several states — including Washington — have provided clemency for people with marijuana convictions on their records. And the U.S. House of Representatives last year passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act to decriminalize cannabis and remove it from the Schedule I list (Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, voted against the bill); the measure was not taken up by the Senate and has been reintroduced this year.
The goal is not to promote or even approve of marijuana use, and we again stress the need for strict measures to keep it out of the hands of minors. But there needs to be a more practical approach to a drug that is widely used, and that calls for broad research into the substance and its physical and social impacts.
By expanding its marijuana research, Washington State University can help answer questions about marijuana’s impact on brain development, roadside detection and workplace issues. Those answers can lead to improved public policy, rather than leaving proponents in a Catch-22.