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Clinton on Marijuana Research

Hillary Clinton said at a town hall meeting that “you can’t do any research about” marijuana because it’s a Schedule I drug. That’s false. Schedule I classification makes it difficult to conduct research on a substance, but not impossible.

At the event, which aired April 21 on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” a voter asked the Democratic presidential candidate whether she would vote for legalizing marijuana if such a referendum question appeared on the ballot in her state. Clinton did not say how she would vote, but she said she supports marijuana research.

Clinton, April 21: I think I would have to study that more to see how it was phrased because it’s been phrased differently in different states. But I will tell you what I will do as president, I’ve said I want to move marijuana off of Schedule I, which you understand means that you can’t do any research about it, you can’t do anything. I think that’s wrong. We have enough anecdotal evidence … about what marijuana can do for medical conditions, easing pain, and we need to be doing research on it because I am 100 percent in favor of medical uses for marijuana.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, drugs and other substances are classified into five categories “depending upon the drug’s acceptable medical use and the drug’s abuse or dependency potential.”

SciCHECKinsertSchedule I drugs are “the most dangerous class of drugs” and have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” They include heroin, LSD, marijuana and ecstasy. In contrast, the DEA classifies cocaine, methamphetamine, OxyContin and Adderall as Schedule II drugs. Xanax, Valium and Ambien fall under Schedule IV.

Multiple news sources have reported on the difficulty of conducting research on marijuana because it’s classified as a Schedule I drug. We also addressed this difficulty when Chuck Rosenberg, acting head of the DEA, falsely said smoking marijuana has “never been shown to be safe or effective as a medicine” back in November.

Donald Abrams, a marijuana researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, told us by phone that one hurdle researchers must overcome is obtaining a license from the DEA to study Schedule I drugs. In order to obtain a license, the DEA has to examine a researcher’s facility to make sure it’s safe to store Schedule I substances, he said. The Food and Drug Administration also notes this on its website.

Another hurdle is obtaining the marijuana for study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. As the FDA explains, the NIDA has “contracts with the University of Mississippi to grow marijuana for use in research studies.” This is the “only legal source” of marijuana for research in the U.S., says Abrams. The Los Angeles Times also reported on this issue in May 2014.

“The problem is that the NIDA … has a congressional mandate that they can only study substances of abuse as substances of abuse. So if you want to study cannabis for potential medical benefit you have to be funded by someone else,” Abrams told us. So obtaining marijuana for study is less of an impediment than obtaining funding for the research, he said.

According to an analysis by News21, a student journalism project at Arizona State University, the National Institutes of Health granted $1.1 billion in funding for research on marijuana abuse and addiction between 2008 and 2014. Comparatively, the NIH spent $297 million on research concerning marijuana’s potential medical benefits and effects on the brain.

Still, it’s not impossible to study marijuana’s harms or benefits as a drug, as Clinton claimed.

Abrams, for example, is currently funded by the National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute to conduct research on the medical benefits of marijuana on sickle cell anemia patients. He also pointed us to the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, which coordinates “rigorous scientific studies to assess the safety and efficacy of cannabis and cannabis compounds for treating medical conditions.”

When we emailed Clinton’s office asking for support for her claim, a campaign representative made many of the points we have above. The representative also accurately noted, “All [marijuana] studies have to undergo review through the FDA’s Investigational New Drug process for drug development,” in addition to the hurdles outlined above.

Clinton’s representative pointed us to an April 2016 Scientific American article, in which Sachin Patel, an associate professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, says, “Rescheduling cannabis as Schedule II will allow the research to get done that needs to be done to determine if this is going to be a good medicine, and for what.”

We don’t disagree that reclassifying marijuana would make it easier to conduct research on the potential medical benefits of the drug. But Clinton’s claim that currently “you can’t do any research about” marijuana is wrong.

Editor’s Note: SciCheck is made possible by a grant from the Stanton Foundation.