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Opinion: States are scrambling to regulate cannabis. Federal regulations would ensure safe access.

States vary dramatically in their approaches to regulating cannabis product quality, if they have an approach at all.

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AUG. 10, 2023 5:29 PM PT

Huffaker is a public health researcher and co-chair of San Diego Americans for Safe Access. She lives in Downtown. All opinions expressed are her own.

Think, for a moment, about the assumptions you hold about the medications you take. Do you feel assured that the Tylenol in your medicine cabinet contains the exact dose of acetaminophen advertised on its label? Do you know for certain that your asthma medication is not depositing harmful pesticides into your lungs with every inhalation?

In the United States, we are fortunate to have a robust regulatory system for ensuring medications — particularly those intended for consumption by individuals with pre-existing medical conditions — are held to the highest safety standards. Unfortunately, with cannabis classified as a Schedule I substance, there is no way to regulate it for the benefit of patients and non-medical consumers alike. States are left to scramble for ways to regulate cannabis in the absence of any clear or consistent guidance.

To highlight the problems raised by our patchwork approach to cannabis regulation, a recent analysis conducted by the national nonprofit group Americans for Safe Access revealed that states vary dramatically in their approaches to regulating cannabis product quality, if they have an approach at all.

In addition to the human rights issues caused by decades of federal cannabis criminalization, the lack of federal oversight creates an environment where medical cannabis patients’ needs remain unmet and health inequities persist. Across the country, medical cannabis may be prescribed for over 100 conditions, including cancer, pain, HIV/AIDS and epilepsy. For patients with pre-existing illnesses, it is extremely important to have access to products that are free from contaminants such as pesticides, heavy metals and microbes.

Additionally, with over 100 known cannabinoids and hundreds more terpenes (medicinal compounds responsible for the aroma, flavor and pigment of various plant species), it is vital that patients have access to accurate testing and labeling of their products in order to acquire strains or formulations that present the greatest benefits for their condition with the fewest harms.

Americans for Safe Access’ proposed comprehensive medical cannabis and cannabinoid legislation would address medical cannabis patients’ needs through several mechanisms. First, the legislation calls for the creation of a federal Office of Medical Cannabis and Cannabinoid Control. Housed under the Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of Medical Cannabis and Cannabinoid Control would serve a number of purposes, including facilitating research on medical cannabis, regulating the production of medical cannabis and cannabinoid products, and facilitating the creation of public-private partnerships for product development and research purposes.

Second, the legislation would also create a new Schedule VI for cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act. Currently, cannabis is classified as a Schedule I substance, meaning that it is considered to have no medicinal value (a claim that has been thoroughly debunked through decades of research). In addition, unlike almost all other substances included in the Controlled Substances Act, cannabis is a natural product (i.e., not synthetic) and thus does not fit neatly into the existing structure of the Controlled Substances Act.

However, descheduling cannabis entirely would not address the need for regulatory oversight when it comes to product safety, research and development. A new Schedule VI would address patient needs while simultaneously removing many of the harsh criminal penalties that have led to the mass incarceration of predominantly Black and Brown individuals. With 38 states, the District of Columbia and four territories allowing the use of medical cannabis products, it is safe to say that cannabis is not going anywhere anytime soon. Comprehensive federal legislation is the next logical step to ensure that medical cannabis patients remain a focal point in the fight for safe access.

Write your lawmakers today to express your support for the proposed legislation.

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