The American Academy of Pediatrics is calling on the U.S. government to reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous drug so that scientists can conduct more research into its potential health effects, according to a policy statement released Monday. It’s the first time that the leading doctors’ group has updated its official stance on medical marijuana in more than a decade.
“The AAP strongly supports research and development of pharmaceutical cannabinoids and supports a review of policies promoting research on the medical use of these compounds,” the AAP statement reads. To that end, the group recommends that the Drug Enforcement Agency reschedule marijuana from a Schedule I controlled substance to Schedule II.
Under the Controlled Substances Act, the U.S. has five “schedules” for drugs and chemicals that can be used to make drugs. Schedule I is reserved for drugs that the DEA considers to have the highest potential for abuse and no “currently accepted medical use.” Marijuana has been classified as Schedule I for decades, along with other substances like heroin, ecstasy, and LSD. While a lower schedule for marijuana would not make it legal, it could ease restrictions on researching the drug.
The pediatrician’s group does not support the full legalization of marijuana, maintaining that the drug is not healthy for kids and worrying that legalizing pot for adults will make it easier for children to get their hands on it. The new policy statement does, however, support decriminalization — a policy change that the group believes “takes this whole issue out of the criminal justice system and puts it into the health system, where it really should be.”
The AAP says that the criminal penalties for being caught with marijuana should be reduced so that a drug possession charge doesn’t prevent young people from successfully getting jobs, housing, or student loans in the future. They recommend that kids found in possession of the drug could be entered in a treatment center instead of placed in juvenile detention. “A focus on treatment for adolescents with marijuana use problems should be encouraged, and adolescents with marijuana use problems should be referred to treatment,” the statement said.
Marijuana: Research and Policy
The DEA is the federal agency that is primarily responsible for regulating controlled substances like marijuana. But the Food and Drug Administration, along with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, provides the DEA with recommendations about the appropriate level of restriction for various illicit substances.
The FDA is already engaged in a review of the medical evidence surrounding the safety and effectiveness of marijuana. The evaluation was initiated due to a request from the DEA, following a number of citizens’ petitions asking for a review. According to the Controlled Substances Act, the government must consider eight factors when deciding the schedule under which a substance should be classified. These include its potential for abuse, the state of current scientific knowledge about the substance and its psychic or physiological dependence liability.
But in the new statement, AAP says that the current classification of marijuana has stalled large-scale research on cannabis, since it’s difficult for scientists to get government funding for studies regarding Schedule I drugs’ potential medical uses. On top of that, researchers have to get government approval to for legal pot supplies, and their studies are often put on hold when those requests are denied. Federal authorities have also long been accused of only funding marijuana research that focuses on the potential negative effects of the drug. Since 2003, more than 500 grants for marijuana-related studies have received federal approval, but only about 30 of those have examined the potential medical benefits of marijuana.
Without more rigorous scientific research in the field, it’s hard for health officials to know exactly how to approach marijuana policy. The lead authors of the policy statement ultimately hope the group’s clout will help pave the way for the federal government to allow more research on the effects of cannabis in children — and particularly on the potential for the drug to help address serious seizures that won’t go away with any other kind of treatment.
“There’s never been a study of cannabinoids in any form that has included children. With that in mind, the AAP cannot endorse use of cannabinoid medication with children,” Dr. Sharon Levy, the chair of AAP’s committee on substance abuse and one of the experts who authored the new policy, told NBC News. “We do note, though, there have been anecdotal cases that look promising. And that suggests there’s a need for study. We support reducing the barriers to do that.”
Short of full legalization, the endorsement of marijuana for medical purposes has increasingly become politically popular. Proponents of decriminalizing marijuana say that there’s mounting evidence the drug can serve as a less addictive option for patients struggling with chronic pain. According to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, 76 percent of doctors would prescribe marijuana to their patients.
While the FDA hasn’t advocated for legalization of the drug, it said in a 2014 update to its guidelines on marijuana that it is “aware that there is considerable interest in its use to attempt to treat a number of medical conditions, including, for example, glaucoma, AIDS wasting syndrome, neuropathic pain, cancer, multiple sclerosis, chemotherapy-induced nausea, and certain seizure disorders.”