WASHINGTON – Marijuana and CBD dispensaries line the main avenues of Durango and Cortez, reflecting a growing agricultural and retail industry in Southwest Colorado.
The Colorado Department of Revenue reported this month that marijuana sales grew for the sixth consecutive year, totaling $1.6 billion in 2019. The state of Colorado also collected over $300 million in medical and retail marijuana taxes.
But a director at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Nora Volkow, testified before U.S. House lawmakers Wednesday that not enough research has been done on the medical or health effects of cannabis.
This is because researchers have to register and comply with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Food and Drug Administration, which currently categorize marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, the most stringently regulated category that includes substances like heroin and ecstasy.
Federal reclassification? Newly proposed legislation from the House would make the application process easier for researchers to study the effects of marijuana.
Researchers are currently reluctant to study marijuana because it is “too much effort” to apply to study drugs under Schedule 1, Volkow said before the subcommittee on health, under the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Matthew Strait, a senior policy adviser at the DEA, testified that changes to the Controlled Substances Act are needed to expedite new research projects on marijuana at the rate House lawmakers are pushing for, given the strong public interest in marijuana research.
Rep. Joseph Kennedy, D-Mass., said marijuana would be easier to research if it wasn’t classified as a Schedule 1 drug.
“We are out of time, states are just not waiting anymore,” Kennedy said.
Durango hemp grower and agricultural consultant Scott Perez said reclassification would “definitely be an improvement” in the long run for Southwest Colorado.
Farmers are “jumping into the game to make a quick buck” without knowing enough about how to keep tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly referred to as THC, at a legal level for hemp, Perez said. Hemp crops with illegally high levels of THC need to be destroyed.
Furthermore, the marijuana that researchers legally have access to has different potency levels from the marijuana that is on the market for consumers.
Douglas Throckmorton, a deputy director at the FDA, said determining if different kinds of marijuana have different medical values is important.
Pot intoxication standard“We do know marijuana has negative effects,” Volkow said, such as an “increase in emergency room and hospital admissions in states that have legalized it,” resulting from incidents like car crashes.
However, Samuel Cole, traffic safety communications manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said there is no indication that marijuana legalization led to a spike in cannabis-related traffic deaths.
While the data may show THC is present, it remains in the bloodstream long after the side effects have worn off and may not be impairing the driver at the time of the crash.
According to data from CDOT, there has been a 40% decline in fatalities related to cannabis since 2016.
Currently, there is no legal standard at the federal level for driving under the influence of marijuana, though Colorado law says 5 nanograms of active THC per liter of blood is considered driving under the influence.
Glenn Davis, highway safety manager for CDOT, said there is not a lot of data to back that number up.
It is “important from a traffic safety standpoint to get ahead” in research on the kind of marijuana the general public is using, which is different from the marijuana researchers are currently using, Davis said.
“If marijuana was unscheduled, it would be easier to do this research,” Davis told The Durango Herald.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., said more research is “absolutely essential” to determine an appropriate level for driving.
Cole said he agrees that “much more research is needed to come up with a good data point for impairment.” Some states just test for the presence of THC, not its impairment on driving.
THC vaping ‘worrisome’ House lawmakers also came to the conclusion that research on the impacts of THC on children is urgently needed.
“It is clear that marijuana is not a good thing for the developing brain,” Volkow said. But researchers don’t have access to the synthetic chemicals and compounds of THC used in vaping products.
These chemicals and compounds could have detrimental long-term effects on health for teens.
The House subcommittee plans another hearing that will include testimony from industry stakeholders.
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.