Of Mice & Marijuana: Lab Rats Have Greater Access to MMJ

Legal restrictions on cannabis research mean that the biggest beneficiaries of groundbreaking research into the plants medicinal properties are lab rodents.

Legal restrictions on cannabis research mean that the biggest beneficiaries of groundbreaking research into the plants medicinal properties are lab rodents.

The marijuana news last week was dominated by results of a study, and with good reason: Cannabis might reverse the brain’s aging process — for some among us, anyway.

Research from a team of German and Israeli researchers found that marijuana seems to allow aged brains to recover some of their cognitive function: When exposed to low doses of THC, elderly minds didn’t suffer the same decline as other similarly-aged brains — meaning, maybe, marijuana could treat Alzheimer’s or dementia or the other ravages of time on the brain.

With medical cannabis, an aging brain might be able to retain function for a few more years — or even recover some of its youthful vigor. Maybe cannabis would be a good medicine for you — that is, if your brain starts to melt after just a year of use…

That is, if you are a mouse.

The researchers ran their experiment on mice, not men (or women or children). Which means the “profound, long-lasting improvement in cognitive performance” found by the study in subjects using THC is (thus far) limited to rodents. And unless national drug policy (in several countries) is drastically revised, that’s as far as this breakthrough will go.

The research team readily admitted the limitations of their own findings, and noted that they planned to start running similar experiments on humans. At some point. Somewhere…

But, as journalist and author, Sir Simon Jenkins, wrote in The Guardian, it will not be in the United Kingdom, where national drug policy forbids marijuana research.

“Clearly this needs to be tested,” as David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, told the newspaper, “but it will not be possible in the UK due to the ridiculous restrictions on cannabis research occasioned by its being a schedule 1 drug.”

Marijuana has been banned outright in Britain since 1971 — around the same time U.S. President Richard Nixon ushered in the war on drugs with the Controlled Substances Act. Several attempts to undo total prohibition have all failed. Both major parties in power, the right-wing Conservatives and lefty Labour, agree on one point: Marijuana should remain criminalized, despite half of voters believing that cannabis should be legal.

So backwards is Britain that even medical marijuana, a reality even in conservative enclaves in the U.S., is still a fantasy despite overwhelming popular support.

“This is medieval Britain,” Jenkins fumed, “where policy is dominated by fear politics and fake news.”

The situation is only marginally better in the United States. From 2008 to 2014, the National Institutes of Health spent $1.4 billion on cannabis-related research — with $1.1 billion devoted to studying abuse and addiction, not the plant’s medical value.

Last summer, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced that cannabis would remain a Schedule I controlled substance, despite rumblings it might be rescheduled. This means scientists need special DEA permission — along with intimidating and disturbing visits from DEA agents, nicknamed the “men in black” — to study even non-psychoactive, synthetic drugs derived from cannabinoids.

Yes, billions of dollars in marijuana is legally bought and sold every year, but very little cannabis is going to researchers. And what marijuana can be studied in the U.S. is of such notoriously low quality that U.S. veterans participating in a study into whether marijuana can solve PTSD would be better off supplying their own.

All this to say, if you want to know exactly what cannabis will do to you and how, you’re still better off being a literal lab rat.

TELL US, would you like to see expanded cannabis access for U.S. researchers?

Chris Roberts has written about medical cannabis, drug policy, and legalization ever since spending a few months in Humboldt County in 2009, with bylines for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, and SF Weekly. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cbloggy.

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