Cannabis Is About to Break Through

If I were to say that cannabis is about to break through, I’d be about 10 years too late. Every election cycle in recent memory has featured at least one state legalizing cannabis at the recreational level. CBD product advertisements are something of a right of passage on the podcast circuit. And two-thirds of the general public favors its legalization.

But the less-discussed cannabis “breakthrough” is yet to come and perhaps more important. Because of wise new steps being taken by the federal government, we are on the precipice of a major shift in the availability of quality cannabis research that will give the medical and scientific community an improved understanding of both the risks and benefits of cannabis products, opening the door to significant public health breakthroughs.

In the last few weeks, the Drug Enforcement Administration has issued its long-awaited framework for legal cannabis cultivation for research purposes (my company is an applicant with the DEA to procure one of these licenses), and Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) successfully led the Cannabidiol and Marijuana Research Expansion Act to passage, which would help encourage scientific and medical research of cannabis compounds.

Both of these actions will unchain plant scientists and doctors from bureaucratic red tape, and foster an unprecedented wave of innovative research. This work will help uncover new information about a substance we actually know very little about while creating intellectual property and revenues here in the United States. In-depth cannabis research may reveal promising new medical applications, which could translate into the development of life-changing treatments for thousands of my fellow combat veterans. A towering 90 percent of veterans support researching cannabis for medicinal purposes.

Since the 1960s, a single entity, the University of Mississippi, has held a monopoly on growing federally compliant cannabis for research purposes. This monopoly has unsurprisingly resulted in a shortage of supply compared to current demand for cannabis research. Even worse, the research supply that does exist through this monopoly is not commensurate with the potency one would find in a dispensary or on the street.

It has been four years since the DEA said it would begin licensing new suppliers of cannabis grown for scientific research purposes. At least 26 applications were submitted to the DEA, including my own company’s, but no additional licenses have been issued since that promise was made and research into cannabis — both its potential benefits and risks — remains inadequate. Despite our significant knowledge gaps regarding this product, dispensaries continue to open in droves nationwide, prescription marijuana becomes a new normal for thousands of ailments and cannabis stocks become an emerging darling of traditionally straight-laced Wall Street investors.

Under the safe scrutiny of the DEA, this new research pipeline will protect the public by defining potential negative effects of marijuana while uncovering its medical potential. Those discoveries would help Americans everywhere and create American jobs and intellectual property currently being developed by international firms.

The DEA should move quickly to issue these licenses because this is, at its core, a veterans health issue. When 20 veterans die each day from suicide, when veterans are at greater risk of opioid overdose and death than the general population, and when about 1 in 5 veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, we need to look under every possible rock to find solutions.

There is at least some evidence that cannabis is effective as a pain management alternative to opioids, that it can help treat traumatic brain injuries and that it can help reduce symptoms for PTSD sufferers. More research is needed to confirm these assumptions and fine-tune cannabis-derived treatments to ensure their efficacy and safety for veterans, many of whom suffer from chronic conditions associated with the physical and emotional toll of war. There are over two dozen research firms, and hundreds of research institutions and universities that stand ready to begin this research.

This is a personal issue for me, not only because I am the CEO of one of the more than 25 research companies still waiting for a license from the DEA after four years, but because I served as a U.S. Navy SEAL and have experienced firsthand the issues faced by returning combat veterans, including the limitations of current treatments for many medical and psychiatric conditions.

We have an opportunity today like never before. If the DEA can review the applications carefully and issue these licenses promptly, we could be on the verge of one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in some time. Hundreds of elite academic institutions and private biotech companies like mine stand at the ready to begin unlocking the power of cannabis compounds. We have to take advantage of this opportunity, but it starts with good governance like the Cannabidiol and Marijuana Research Expansion Act and the DEA’s willingness to view cannabis not just as a controlled substance but also as a compound with significant medical and pharmaceutical potential.

George Hodgin is a former Navy SEAL and the CEO of Biopharmaceutical Research Co. near Monterey, Calif. 

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult