As the narrative surrounding cannabis continues to shift, numerous states in the U.S. are changing their laws regarding its consumption. Since Colorado and Washington became the first two states to completely legalize cannabis in 2012, eight other states have followed suit, with Michigan being the latest to vote to completely legalize recreational cannabis in the 2018 midterm elections.

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Despite the progress made in regards to public perception and laws on a state-by-state basis, marijuana is still considered an illegal substance at a federal level. As a matter of fact, cannabis is in the same class federally as heroin. Because of this, it has been very difficult for researchers to study the potential long-term effects, both positive and negative.

Limited Research Because of Cannabis' Schedule I Classification

Research Scientist Looks into Microscope. He's Conducts Experiments in Modern Laboratory. iStock / gorodenkoff

Since it is considered a Schedule I drug, in order for scientists to study cannabis, they must work their way through several federal organizations including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), and others depending on the state. After having navigated their way through these various organizations, scientists then must follow strict procedures in the way they conduct their research. The DEA has rigid regulations on how researchers must store, purchase, document, and dispose of the drug.

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It's no wonder why there is such a small batch of research available in regards to the long-term effects of cannabis and all the ways the substance truly affects us. However, it is absolutely necessary for that evidence-base to widen. National legalization would make this a reality and give the public the knowledge necessary to make informed decisions.

If we are to continue legalizing cannabis only on a state-by-state basis, with no research to turn to in regards to how marijuana truly affects us in the long-term, we are causing a public safety issue. The truth is, we don’t truly have all the information available regarding cannabis. We don’t know whether second-hand smoke is as dangerous as tobacco smoke, we don’t know the long-term effects, etc. We not only deserve to know these things, but we need to know these things. National legalization is a must so that the FDA can set national safety standards regarding its use.

National Legalization = National Regulation

Tweezers hold cannabis bud in a laboratory iStock / boonchai wedmakawand

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The FDA regulates everything from food to cosmetics to veterinary products to tobacco. It provides stipulations not only in how companies manufacture these consumer goods but also in how they market and distribute them as well. With the FDA’s number one concern being consumer safety, it only makes sense for this organization to regulate cannabis as well and set national safety standards regarding its manufacture, distribution, and marketing. But this is only possible for this federal organization with national legalization.

If you need further convincing, let’s take a look at the history of tobacco for a second. As smoking increased through the 1950s, so did lung cancer. While there was initially no belief from researchers that tobacco and lung cancer were linked, later large-scale studies provided enough evidence to suggest that smoking was hazardous to our health. One of these studies ended up contributing to the landmark 1964 Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health, which led to mass policy changes regarding tobacco.

However, it wasn’t until 2009 under the Obama Administration that the FDA began regulating tobacco products when President Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. This allowed the FDA to regulate the way companies manufacture, distribute, and market their tobacco products in order to protect public health. During the act’s implementation, the FDA Center for Tobacco Products was established. As well, this is also when the FDA announced a ban on cigarettes with flavors characterizing fruit, candy, or clove.

Tobacco is a federally legal substance and this fact allowed researchers to study the long-term effects of its use, which in turn allowed the FDA to step in and begin to regulate tobacco products and set safety standards. We need to do the same with marijuana, especially given its medicinal use.

Following in Tobacco's Footsteps

Medicinal marijuana has many uses and has benefits across the board. For example, the use of medical marijuana has been shown to help relieve the pain associated with multiple sclerosis. As well, medical marijuana has been helpful in patients who suffer from chronic pain, which affects millions of Americans. Medical marijuana is also safer for patients than opiates as it’s impossible to overdose on and way less addictive. For these reasons alone, we should absolutely have a clearer understanding of how marijuana affects patients with so many benefiting positively from it.

Of course, we can’t forget recreational cannabis. Marijuana is the most popular illicit drug in the United States. With ever-changing laws across the United States regarding its consumption, consumers have the right to know how a product affects them, no matter what it is, both in the short- and long-term sense. To suggest otherwise would be contributing to a threat to public safety.

All and all, national legalization is absolutely necessary for public safety so that the FDA can set national safety standards. We need to look no further than the timeline of when the FDA was actually able to set national safety standards regarding tobacco use from when the research became available to understand why this issue of national legalization is so very pressing. It will take time, and potentially lots of it.

It is more than time for the government to get the ball rolling and start making the tough but necessary changes for making national legalization a reality in this country. After all, if recent elections show us anything, the public perception is ever-changing and laws are going to continue to become laxer in regards to cannabis. Legalization is going to spread and public health will be in question. We need the research, we need the FDA’s involvement, and we need it now. To do otherwise would simply be irresponsible.