RALEIGH — Medical researchers should be allowed to dive “into the weeds,” a handful of U.S. senators who want to roll back regulations for marijuana studies say.

The Marijuana Effective Drug Study Act of 2017, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would simplify rules for scientists who want to learn more about the plant’s pros and cons. North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis is a bill sponsor.

The idea, as Hatch said in his press release introducing the bill, is to evaluate the “effectiveness, safety, dosing, administration, and quality of medical marijuana.” Fresh studies could determine if pot is a legitimate, less-addictive alternative to opioids in treating chronic pain, for instance.

Marijuana was criminalized 80 years ago by the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Today, cannabis research is tightly regulated by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

NIDA contracts with the University of Mississippi to grow marijuana for federally sanctioned studies. That monopoly makes it nearly impossible for researchers to access the high-grade cannabis they need, said Justin Strekal, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.  

The MEDS Act would make marijuana more available to researchers and would require NIDA to develop and publish a manual for growing marijuana for research, Hatch said.

The bill would also require the U.S. attorney general to bump up the national quota for marijuana production “in a timely manner to meet the changing medical, scientific, and industrial needs for marijuana.”

“To be blunt, we need to remove the administrative barriers preventing legitimate research into medical marijuana,” Hatch said.

He isn’t the only one who thinks so.

In August, the National Football League wrote a letter to the NFL Players Association, proposing a study on marijuana as a pain management tool for athletes. That’s a gigantic step for the league, which has killed many a player’s buzz with its anti-marijuana policies. Each year, league officials issue suspensions for several NFL players, including Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, who missed four games at the start of the 2016 season. A teammate, wide receiver Martavis Bryant, missed the entire 2016 season after multiple offenses.

But medical marijuana has a place in society, many say.

Military veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, champion medical marijuana. But progress has been slow, Michael Krawitz, executive director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, says in a recent article in Reason magazine.

Twenty-four of the 29 states that have legalized medical marijuana recognize the drug specifically for its ability to treat PTSD. Yet the federal government still classifies the plant as a Schedule I drug. The feds claim it has no medical properties; holds a high potential for abuse; and is too difficult to determine safe doses. Pot is in the same classification as heroin and Ecstasy.

The Veterans Administration technically allows veterans to get treatment through state marijuana programs, but VA doctors often misunderstand that policy. As a result, they sometimes insist patients abstain from marijuana treatment.

Roadblocks like this abound, and it’s going to take more than the MEDS Act to make truly necessary changes in the system, Strekal said.

The legislation doesn’t change marijuana’s Schedule I classification, and only marginally increases opportunities for research, he said.

A NIDA manual on how to grow marijuana is largely unhelpful, he added.

“This is kind of silly. They’re telling researchers is to grow their own pot. And if a researcher wants to do that, that’s great, but I’m not expecting a researcher to have a green thumb.”

Scientists should be free to buy marijuana from professional growers — not forced to grow it, or to get lower-grade supplies such as those produced by the University of Mississippi, Strekal said.

Politicians say they need to see more research about the medical effects of marijuana, but that’s just a tactic to blow smoke, Strekal said.

“Lawmakers, Hatch included, continue to say ‘we need more data. We can’t make a decision until we have more data.’”

Thousands of studies about marijuana are available via the U.S. National Library of Medicine, he said.  

The stats are clear on the many benefits of marijuana to treat epilepsy, pain, PTSD, and more. On top of that, no one dies from taking marijuana, he said.

The MEDS Act is one of several marijuana-related bills filed in Congress this year. In February, Rep. Thomas Garrett, R-Virginia, introduced the Ending Federal Prohibition Act of 2017, a bill that would legalize marijuana completely. That bill was passed around a handful of committees but saw no action.

Medical marijuana in North Carolina

Marijuana isn’t legal in North Carolina, though CBD oil, a non-psychoactive part of the plant, is allowed to treat specific types of epilepsy in children.

Gov. Roy Cooper, who serves on President Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and Opioid Crisis, says he wants to learn more about the impact of marijuana in other states before moving to legalize it in North Carolina.  

State lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle should “just say yes” to medical marijuana, said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford. In February, Harrison helped introduce House Bill 185, Legalize Medical Marijuana.

The bill, like many of its predecessors, failed to make it out of committee.

“The majority of the country has legalized this, and it should be here,” she told Carolina Journal.

Eighty percent of North Carolinians agree, a poll from Elon University shows.

North Carolina veterans are especially supportive of legalizing cannabis, Harrison said, stating that most have found it to be more effective, and less addictive, than opioids.

In states with “robust medical marijuana programs” governments have seen a 36 percent decline in opioid abuse, and a 25 percent decline in opioid-related deaths, shows a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“One of the benefits of responsible research is discovering whether or not medical marijuana or derivatives could be a viable alternative to other pain management treatments like opioids,” said Daniel Keylin, a spokesperson for Tillis.

There are detractors, of course, and some health professionals remain dubious about the benefits of legalizing what is now an illegal drug in North Carolina.

Marijuana is an addictive substance, just like any other drug, and should be treated with skepticism, said Margaret Rukstalis, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Wake Forest School of Medicine.

“It’s just statistics. The more people become exposed, the more people are going to like it, or become dependent,” she said. “Whether it’s medical marijuana or not, I think the literature for the benefit is not compelling and worth the risk, personally.”