Editor’s Note
June 2015
A Hard Look at a Soft Drug

You might remember this TV antidrug ad.

“This is your brain,” says a grim-faced guy. He holds up an egg. “This is drugs,” he says, gesturing to a skillet on the stove and then cracking the egg into the hot pan. “This is your brain on drugs.” The egg sizzles and congeals. “Any questions?”

Picture of quality control testing at CannLabs in Denver, Colorado
Photo: Lynn Johnson
At the CannLabs facility in Denver, Colorado, cannabis products undergo rigorous testing for quality control.

Well, yes—lots of them. And decades after this crusade aired, relatively few have been answered, especially about marijuana.

Now that nearly half the states in this country allow medical marijuana, voters in four states have legalized pot for recreation, and a majority of Americans favor legalization, research about how marijuana affects our brains and bodies is an urgent issue.

There is less hard science about marijuana than you might think. “For nearly 70 years the plant went into hiding, and medical research largely stopped,” Hampton Sides reports in this issue. “In America most people expanding knowledge about cannabis were by definition criminals.”

Now, Sides and photographer Lynn Johnson find, “the science of cannabis is experiencing a rebirth. We’re finding surprises, and possibly miracles, concealed inside this once forbidden plant.”

But the federal government still classifies marijuana as a dangerous Schedule I drug, declaring that, like heroin, it has no accepted medical use. Unless marijuana is reclassified to Schedule II status—allowing it to be studied with fewer restrictions—answers will be slow. Bipartisan bills to change its status have been introduced in both the Senate and House of Representatives; chances of passage are unclear.

Some top-ranking federal health officials privately bemoan the paucity of marijuana science but tiptoe around the subject in public statements. Not so Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who introduced a bill along with fellow Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican. Marijuana, Gillibrand says, has “always been demonized. But when you focus on patient-centric advocacy and get patients in front of lawmakers, they will realize how stupid the law is ... It is absurd we are not permitted to do scientific research.” Gillibrand isn’t sure if there will be a vote on the bill this year, but she is hoping for a hearing to bring the concerns to light.

The timing couldn’t be better. The disconnect between the willingness of some states to regulate, sell, and tax marijuana and the federal reluctance to allow research to progress leaves an increasing number of people without the knowledge to make informed, science-based choices.

Susan Goldberg, Editor in Chief

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