Updated on January 4, 2020.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Medical marijuana research is nowhere near as advanced in the U.S. as it is in other countries. In fact, some of the best research is being conducted in places you might never have associated with weed. Here’s a quick outline of the progress a couple of other countries are making in medical cannabis research.
The Challenges of Medical Marijuana Research in the U.S.
Trying to conduct meaningful research into the medical benefits of marijuana in the U.S. is, let’s just say, challenging at best. The biggest problem, of course, is that the federal government still classifies the drug as illegal. As a result, scientists can’t simply give it to people willing to participate in clinical trials to see if it improves whatever conditions they’re suffering from.
There’s only one legal way to study the effects of weed — to apply for a batch of the only federally sanctioned cannabis that exists. But this “legal pot,” which is housed at the University of Mississippi, has been criticized as not only being dry and harsh, but overall awful to use. And even if you want to conduct research using a batch of this weed, you still have to jump through myriad hoops and get approval from several federal agencies.
The Mississippi supplier is the only one in the country — or the world, for that matter — whose pot is considered “medical grade” by the federal government. In order for others to get that label, and as a result expand the supply of pot that can be used for research, it will likely take millions of dollars and several years.
Israel Takes the Initiative
While the U.S. continues to mostly spin its wheels in terms of a coordinated commitment to finding out exactly how beneficial medical marijuana can be, Israel has had no problem becoming a true pioneer in the field. In fact, Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam was credited with identifying THC in pot. The country also developed the El-na and Avidekel strains of marijuana, and could eventually be the world’s leading exporter of medical cannabis.
The overall medical marijuana program in Israel has taken a vastly different approach from the U.S. Here, medical pot dispensaries appeared sporadically in states before any real research was performed on the plant’s effectiveness. In Israel, on the other hand, research into medical cannabis has been going on for five decades. It really started to pick up steam, however, in 2008 with the formation of Mechkar, the country’s medical marijuana program. In less than 10 years, the program has grown from less than 2,000 patients to more than 20,000.
But that doesn’t mean anyone with a medical problem in Israel can go to their local drugstore and buy a joint. There are only 36 doctors who are allowed to prescribe cannabis in the country, so patients have to wait an extremely long time before they can access medical marijuana. However, the Israel Health Ministry is working to issue more licenses, train new doctors and grant approval to more growers.
Israel is taking steps to make it easier for people who need medical marijuana to get it, while working to control the drug so it doesn’t get into the hands of people who don’t.
Dollars and Sense
Israel isn’t committing to research for scientific reasons alone. There are strong economic incentives to do so as well. While the U.S. continues to erect barriers to research, Israel realizes there could be huge money in the plant. The country is planning to position itself as a major player in medical marijuana exports as many nations around the world start to lighten restrictions on pot. Some experts believe that Israeli medical cannabis exports could eventually surpass those of even natural gas.
So, in a nutshell, Israel is getting it right. It is not only showing a commitment by taking the global lead in research, but it is also looking to the future with open eyes. While the U.S. continues to lag behind, Israel is ready to reap the economic benefits — and those benefits should be incredible in the coming years.
Uruguay Stakes a Claim
Israel isn’t the only country that realizes the importance of medical cannabis research. The small Latin American country of Uruguay could soon be another hotbed. And unlike the U.S. government, the government of Uruguay is actually encouraging scientists to study the benefits of the plant. Researchers are almost giddy about the potential and are ready to work largely free of the regulatory obstacles found in other countries.
The wheels have been set in motion to bring in scientists from all over the world to begin intensive studies that could influence pot policies in other countries. For example, discussions are taking place in Colorado regarding whether or not to add post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to the list of conditions that can be treated with medicinal marijuana. Uruguayan scientists are conducting studies that could have an impact on that discussion.
All Is Not Lost
But just because the U.S. government often makes it hard for researchers to study the positive effects of weed, that doesn’t mean there is absolutely no research taking place in our country. For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a study involving cannabidiol (CBD), a compound found in cannabis. CBD is the main component of a drug called Epidolex, which is used to treat epilepsy in children.
The more than 300 children and young adults across the U.S. who participated in the study were given Epidolex over a three-month period. The drug replaced their previous medication. Once the trial period ended, the study showed that 261 of the study participants had a nearly 50 percent reduction in seizures. And 9 percent of the participants were completely seizure-free. Even better, all of the participants either experienced minimal side effects or no side effects at all.
This is an incredible result, and it was made even more impressive considering the fact that it was performed by an agency of the U.S. government. This study only strengthens the argument that marijuana is, in fact, medicine — regardless of how politicians on both the left and the right continue to insist on labeling it.