Can the Benefits of Cannabis Overcome Political Barriers to its Legalization?

Studying how public policy on cannabis can affect public health and health outcomes.
Jennie Ryan, PhD, assistant professor, Jefferson College of Nursing. Photo credit to ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services.

In the 21st century, therapeutic use of cannabis for easing pain associated with everything from back injury to cancer is fairly common. Yet many people – including some influential legislators – remain unwilling or unable to see past marijuana’s long history as a drug popularized by musicians, beatniks and hippies. As a doctoral candidate, Jennie Ryan, PhD, assistant professor, Jefferson College of Nursing, saw marijuana legalized and its therapeutic value recognized and accepted more widely. This went against what she had been taught about it in nursing school. She became increasingly fascinated with learning more about how marijuana, or cannabis, can be helpful to patients – especially adolescents. Read on to learn more about Dr. Ryan’s research.

Q: What led you to Jefferson?

A: I was drawn to Jefferson for the opportunity to work with interdisciplinary research teams on novel cannabis research.  I was lucky to arrive at Jefferson for the collaboration between the Sidney Kimmel Medical College and Ethos Cannabis, which fosters interdisciplinary research on various therapeutic potentials of medical cannabis.  This innovative partnership will facilitate much needed research, and it is very exciting to be a part of it.  In addition, I was drawn to the Jefferson College of Nursing for its strong support of nursing research, especially for early-career investigators like myself.

Q: Tell us a bit about your field or area of research. What’s one question you’re exploring?

A: My research focuses on cannabis policy and health disparities.

I am particularly interested in the effects of cannabis policy on adolescent health outcomes. As cannabis legalization increases across the country, it is important to monitor its effects on adolescents, who are a vulnerable population. One of the main concerns with legalization is that recreational cannabis use among adolescents will increase.  My research also looks at the effects of criminalization.  Cannabis criminalization has resulted in the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of adolescents, with over-representation in minority youth.  Incarceration can have lifelong affects for not only the individual, but also their families and communities.  Black and Latinx communities have been disproportionately affected by criminalization of cannabis and other drugs, and a lot my research focuses on the health disparities created by this.

Q: What first sparked your interest in your area of research/your research question?

A: Throughout my PhD training, I saw the legalization of cannabis for medical and recreational purposes expand rapidly across the U.S. The use of cannabis as a therapeutic agent was contrary to all that I had learned in nursing school, but as more evidence came in, the more compelling this area of research became to me.  Throughout my dissertation, I interviewed parents who were using cannabis to relieve their children’s seizure disorders. I learned of not only the therapeutic benefit they saw from cannabis, but also the many difficulties they had accessing this federally illegal drug. Learning about the history of cannabis criminalization in the U.S. only heightened my interest in how cannabis policy has been shaped by politics versus science.

Cannabis has been stigmatized for so long, but now public perception is changing. – Dr. Ryan

For many years cannabis was a commonly used medication that was listed in US Pharmacopeia, a compendium of drug information.  In 1972, however, it was temporarily classified as a schedule 1 drug pending review.  The review was completed by a presidential commission that examined the public health threat of marijuana.  The commission recommended decriminalization, which was supported by a number of organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association, among others. However, President Nixon rejected the findings of the commission, and marijuana remained a schedule 1 drug.  So, cannabis went from being a medication listed in US Pharmacopeia to being a schedule 1 drug, which means it has no medical value at all.

All this happened without scientific support.  Because of its schedule 1 status, multiple federal restrictions and barriers have blocked the advancement of research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis. This lack of research has consistently been reported as the FDA and DEA’s reasoning for denial of petitions to reschedule. Today, however, advocates have successfully implemented laws at the state level to legalize medical and recreational use of marijuana.

Q: What’s the fire in your belly that drives your passion for your research?

A: As a pediatric nurse practitioner, I am always passionate about the health of children, adolescents and their families.  I am driven to study and promote equitable policies that improve the lives of children, their families and their communities.

Q: What’s a cool or little known or unique fact about your work?

A: A cool thing about my work is seeing how attitudes and perceptions can change.  Cannabis has been stigmatized for so long, but now public perception is changing. Seeing how fast that change has occurred has been fascinating for me.  When I started my PhD in 2014, only a few states had legalized cannabis; now almost every state has legalized some form of medical use!

Q: If you had any words of advice for an aspiring researcher or student in this field, what would they be?

A: Patience and resilience are essential in research, but especially in cannabis research.  Federal criminalization remains a substantial barrier to research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis.  In addition, funding for cannabis research has historically been focused on the negative effects of cannabis use rather than the therapeutic potential, making it difficult for researchers to perform the much-needed research into safety and efficacy.  Although this is changing, we still see significant differences in funding.  Cannabis researchers must therefore be creative and think outside of the box to advance the science in accordance with federal laws and mandates.

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