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U.S. should make it easier to study marijuana, pediatrics group says

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) today urged that federal restrictions around marijuana be loosened to facilitate research on the drug’s potential medical benefits. In a statement published online in Pediatrics, the organization walked a tightrope between strongly discouraging recreational marijuana use among teenagers while acknowledging that medical applications, including in young children, have grown more popular and that more research is needed to better understand when and how the drug might help.

“[N]o studies have been done on the use of medical marijuana in children and adolescents,” wrote Seth Ammerman, a pediatrician at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and co-author of the new policy, in a news story accompanying it. “Therefore, the effects of medical marijuana use on the developing brain is unknown.”

But because marijuana is now classified as a Schedule I controlled substance—along with a cluster of drugs that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says have “no currently accepted medical use in the United States,” such as heroin, ecstasy, and LSD—any studies a researcher might like to pursue come with daunting roadblocks: See here, here, and here. AAP urges that marijuana be dropped to Schedule II—a category of drugs used to treat patients that also must be handled carefully, because they have a “high potential for abuse,” according to DEA. Schedule II drugs include many narcotics, such as morphine and oxycodone, as well as stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall.

There have been compelling reports of desperately ill children helped by cannabis. Some families have relocated to states like Colorado that offer certain strains of medical marijuana. But rigorous studies that can transform the anecdotes into data are scarce: Colorado, one of 23 states (along with the District of Columbia) where medical marijuana is legal for adults, recently greenlighted up to $8.4 million in research grants on the drug, including studies in pediatric epilepsy and pediatric brain tumors. In June, the Food and Drug Administration shared that it was analyzing, at the request of DEA, whether marijuana could be removed from the Schedule I category. The new AAP policy may add to that drumbeat.

The academy also addressed another cannabis-related issue in today’s statement: It strongly opposes imprisoning teens for marijuana use, urging lawmakers and the courts to favor drug treatment strategies instead.