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UB experts weigh in on DEA's reclassification of cannabis

Mon, May 6th 2024 03:00 pm

Submitted by the University at Buffalo 

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s move to reclassify cannabis from a Schedule I to a Schedule III substance has broad implications, paving the way for more informed research on the drug and its effects, to tax benefits for businesses, to the potential for rectifying drug-related wrongs.

The federal government classified cannabis as a Schedule I substance in 1970, placing it alongside heroin, LSD and ecstasy. Reclassification to a Schedule III substance would move cannabis to the same category as ketamine, testosterone and anabolic steroids.

The DEA’s decision is also an acknowledgement by the federal government that there is a medical use for cannabis, and that its potential for abuse is similar to or less than that of alcohol and cigarettes, says R. Lorraine Collins, Ph.D., director of the University at Buffalo’s Center for Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research.

“Research has shown that components of cannabis have medical uses. The FDA has approved the CBD-based drug Epidiolex because it has been effective in the treatment of rare childhood epilepsies. There is substantial evidence that cannabis can effectively treat some chronic pain conditions,” said Collins, who is also associate dean for research in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.

While the DEA’s decision can be considered a win for cannabis research and the cannabis industry, change will not be immediate, several UB experts say.

“We are at the start of what may be a long process related to the lessening of federal restrictions on access to cannabis and conducting cannabis research,” Collins said.

Below, Collins and colleagues from UB’s Center for Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research share their thoughts on the various impacts that will be felt once the federal government reclassifies cannabis.

Implications for research

For decades, researchers’ efforts to effectively study cannabis and provide a fuller range of insights into both its benefits and its potential drawbacks have been stymied by the fact that it was a Schedule I drug. Researchers could acquire cannabis for academic study only through federal dispensaries; the cannabis available, however, often had a much lower THC count than what was more commonly available to consumers.

That all changes with the DEA’s decision.

“Rescheduling would make the kinds of rigorous, randomized controlled studies possible that have long been incredibly difficult, at best, to conduct,” said Rebecca Ashare, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences. “It has limited our ability to understand the true benefits and/or harms, in part because researchers have difficulty accessing product (and matched placebo) to dispense, and because there has been so much variability in products that patients use in the real world.”

Ashare studies the benefits and harms of cannabis use among cancer patients.

“To date, most of my studies have been observational longitudinal studies, but this news could drastically change that,” she said.

Collins noted that, even if cannabis is reclassified, “it will continue to be illegal in federal statutes. So, although academic researchers will have easier access to cannabis products, there are areas of research, such as experiments that involve the administration of cannabis products to humans, which will continue to be closely scrutinized.”

Take, for example, the case of ketamine, which has been a Schedule III drug since 1999. The FDA has approved ketamine products that can be used in the treatment of depression and chronic pain. Research involving randomized clinical trials to examine the efficacy and effectiveness of administering ketamine are also being conducted.

“Similar types of clinical research involving cannabis products will more likely be conducted, and researchers may be able to control the components of the cannabis products – such as dose/potency, THC to CBD ratio, frequency of use, and so on – in such trials,” Collins said. “Researchers also might be able to get access to cannabis products, including products available in retail outlets and dispensaries, rather than having to rely on cannabis products supplied by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).”

More tax credits and deductions for businesses

Reclassifying cannabis to a Schedule III drug would carry a number of benefits for businesses, notes Robert Silverman, Ph.D., professor of urban and regional planning in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, who has been studying the licensing and siting of cannabis dispensaries across the country.

“We are finding that there is a patchwork of approaches to licensing these businesses and identifying equity entrepreneurs for restorative justice purposes,” Silverman said.

Places with the most effective programs, such as Los Angeles, Boston and a couple other cities, issue licenses to relatively equal numbers of equity entrepreneurs – people with prior convictions or from neighborhoods negatively impacted by the war on drugs – but their businesses tend to cluster in areas where there is relatively less access to consumers, he added.

Businesses would be able to claim more deductions and credits on their federal taxes.

“I have seen some estimates of the federal tax burden under the current rules, and it would result in a noticeable reduction for businesses,” Silverman said. “That would apply across the board to all entrepreneurs. To level the playing field for equity entrepreneurs and achieve redistributive justice goals, there would need to be more benefits in the form of small business assistance, loans, grants and MWBE set asides that target this group.”

Implications for social justice

“The reclassification does not remove criminal penalties for possession and use of cannabis, so depending on the jurisdiction, there may be little or no change,” Collins said. “However, state laws that legalized adult-use recreational cannabis, including in New York state, already have included social justice components, such as expungement of nonviolent arrest/criminal records related to cannabis arrests. We must wait to learn what the DEA and Department of Justice decide about rectifying drug-related wrongs that marginalized communities and populations have suffered.”

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are based on the opinions and/or research of the faculty member(s) or researcher(s) quoted, and do not represent the official positions of the University at Buffalo nor of Niagara Frontier Publications.

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