Michael Smolens: Unshackling research on guns, marijuana

Gun Rights

Separate recent developments underscore the need for research into two matters of vast public health, economic and social impact: guns and marijuana.

Firearms and cannabis are ubiquitous across much of the country and their effects on American society, while greatly different, are deep.

Yet for decades, federal hurdles have made it difficult to conduct scientific study of either. Such research may become a bit easier because of what happened last week.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a San Diego federal judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit challenging a California law that allows gun owners’ information to be shared with researchers studying gun violence. That’s significant, though not necessarily a game-changer — but it would have been if the ruling went in the other direction.

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Meanwhile, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency proposed to reclassify marijuana as a less-dangerous drug, which could have broader impact. Currently, cannabis is a Schedule I controlled substance along with such powerful drugs as heroin and LSD.

The recommendation would make marijuana a less-tightly regulated Schedule III drug, a category that includes ketamine, Tylenol with codeine and some anabolic steroids, among others. The proposal now faces a lengthy approval process.

Should the change happen, experts expect there will be more research into various aspects of cannabis.

Increasingly, state and federal views of marijuana have seemed incompatible. The federal government continues to regulate it among the most potent drugs even though cannabis has been legalized for recreational use in 24 states and for medical use in several others.

Federal and state agencies have established rules for research involving storage, security and reporting, among other things. To study the drug, researchers must obtain a Schedule I license from the federal government. Until recently, the license could take a year or more to obtain.

A Schedule III designation would change much of that.

Even before last week’s proposal, efforts were under way to speed up the timeline for cannabis studies. The Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act signed by President Joe Biden in 2022 gave the attorney general 60 days to approve applications, provide reasons for denying them, or request more information, according to Smithsonian magazine.

Access to cannabis for study has also increased. For decades, researchers could only get marijuana from a facility at the University of Mississippi. A handful of other sources were approved by the federal government in 2021.

Despite those changes and the potential Schedule III classification, some researchers say the study of cannabis may still face limits.

“What we haven’t seen is any ability for researchers — cannabis researchers, clinical researchers — to … study products that our patients and our recreational consumers or adult consumers are actually using,” neuroscientist Staci Gruber at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School told National Public Radio.

Some studies have shown that marijuana being sold today is significantly more potent than what was sold years ago. And higher levels of THC, the main psychoactive component in marijuana, are believed to pose more health risks.

Hospitals in San Diego and across the country have been seeing elevated numbers of young patients, including toddlers, arriving in emergency rooms with cannabis poisoning, according to Paul Sisson of The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Yet many people use marijuana to ease medical conditions and for recreation with no apparent significant side effects. The drug has been recommended for people with a wide range of health issues, including Alzheimer’s disease, HIV/AIDS, severe and chronic pain, and nausea caused by cancer treatment, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Marijuana has remained a Schedule I drug for years in part because of the politically-volatile climate over drug enforcement.

National politics has had much to do with limiting gun-violence research.

California’s moves to expand such research has been challenged in court. A lawsuit by a group of gun owners — including three in San Diego — sought to block Assembly Bill 173, which allows disclosure of gun owners’ personal information to researchers.

The lower court judge ruled that the state already collects information on gun buyers and concealed-carry weapon permit applicants, and that the sharing of information outlined in AB 173 was “merely a limited extension” of those measures, according to City News Service.

The federal appellate court wrote that the information did not “implicate the right to privacy” as the plaintiffs maintained. Further, the court added, there had been no allegations that the researchers violated restrictions against publicly disseminating the information.

A San Diego Superior Court judge earlier had issued a preliminary injunction to block AB 173, but that was overturned last fall by a state appeals court.

State researchers had access to that data for years, but things changed in 1996. That’s when Congress prohibited the use of federal funding to advocate or promote gun control, a measure that was passed after the National Rifle Association argued that Center for Disease Control-funded research was biased. That stymied funding for research on gun violence.

In 2016, the California Legislature established the Firearm Violence Research Center at UC Davis. But the state Department of Justice stopped sharing the database information with the center shortly after, according to Kristina Davis of the Union-Tribune.

That led to AB 173.

The federal spigot to fund gun research and data reopened somewhat following the Parkland school mass shooting in 2018 that left 17 people dead. An omnibus bill was signed by President Donald Trump clarifying that restricting the use of federal funds to advocate or promote gun control doesn’t ban research.

In 2019, Congress again began to allocate funds for research and data collection on gun violence.

Yet the research is still playing catch-up because of the more than two-decade restriction on federal funding, while some researchers say more money is needed.

The Congressional Joint Economic Committee some years back examined the shortage of funding for gun violence research.

The panel arrived at a universal conclusion: The first step in solving any problem requires understanding it.

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