A federal health agency said that marijuana’s restrictive Schedule I status is responsible for “slow” research progress. Yet despite budget cuts recently announced by President Donald Trump, the agency expressed commitment to funding studies into how cannabis can be applied in the treatment of pain.

“A growing body of literature suggests that the cannabis plant has pain-relieving properties; however, as a schedule I substance with known psychoactive effects, research on the potential pain-relieving properties of cannabis has been slow,” the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) said in a budget justification document published in March, 2019.

NCCIH funds research on non-conventional medicines and therapies as alternatives or supplements to traditional treatments for a range of conditions, but would lose out on about $20 million under the president’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget proposal.

“The FY 2020 President’s Budget reflects the Administration’s fiscal policy goals for the Federal Government,” the agency wrote in the new overview. “Within that framework, NCCIH will pursue its highest research priorities through strategic investments and careful stewardship of appropriated funds.”

Cannabis research seems to meet that standard as a high research priority and in spite of the cuts, the agency will soon be devoting funds to medical marijuana studies that explore its potential as a natural remedy for pain.

“NCCIH plans to expand efforts around natural products for pain management,” the agency wrote. “Natural products have historically been a source of novel pain-relieving compounds developed into pharmaceuticals (e.g., willow bark into aspirin).”

Exploring cannabis’ pain-relieving properties

The agency document continues by saying the NCCIH will “support research on the diverse components of cannabis to explore if the pain-relieving properties can be separated from the psychoactive properties and to further characterize those components that may reduce pain.”

NCCIH has expressed interest in marijuana before. It has announced a number of funding opportunities for cannabis research in the past, including a call for studies on the effects of “minor cannabinoids and terpenes” on pain. Last year, the agency hosted a workshop that specifically addressed how federal prohibition hinders marijuana research.

Dr. Emmeline Edwards, the director of the division of extramural research for NCCIH, explained in the workshop how marijuana’s Schedule I classification creates significant barriers for researchers and complained that the supply of research-grade cannabis from the country’s only federally authorized source does not reflect the variety of marijuana products used by consumers.

Addressing pain accounts for 40 percent of NCCIH-funded studies and the latest budget justification reflects its commitment to continue the exploration of the therapeutic value of cannabinoids.

Another federal health agency has also expressed interest in cannabis studies. Last month, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality published three notices calling for public input on studies and information about how marijuana could act as an alternative or supplement to opioid painkillers.

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