EXCLUSIVE: Cannabis Researcher On Marijuana Rescheduling — 'Removing Barriers' Will Help, But 'Knowledge Gap' Is Huge

Zinger Key Points
  • It will take more than rescheduling to bridge the knowledge gap, including funding and overall support for research, says the PSU scientist.
  • Portland State University's Chemistry Department is one of the first in the nation to obtain a DEA Schedule I research license.

After five decades of being classified as a Schedule I substance, cannabis is on the brink of reclassification. President Joe Biden's mid-May announcement to officially move marijuana to Schedule III was met with collective joy in the industry, especially among cannabis researchers and scientists.

The change – now in the DEA's 60-day public comments period – could greatly benefit this important scientific field, which has faced daunting hurdles due to marijuana’s classification as a dangerous substance along with the likes of heroin and meth.

All that began to change in January 2024 when the federal government released hundreds of pages of documents confirming for the first time ever that cannabis "has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States." 

Scientist Weighs In: ‘Removing Barriers Can Only Help'

Dr. Robert Strongin, professor of organic chemistry at Portland State University, says he's cautiously optimistic. "As far as research and the new scheduling plans, I am hopeful that this will facilitate research."

However, "The gap between the prevalence of cannabis use and what we now know about the potential harms and/or benefits continues to be huge. I think it will take more than rescheduling to effectively bridge the knowledge gap, including more funding and overall support/encouragement for such research," Strongin told Benzinga in an exclusive interview.

He noted his research teams have been "restricted all these years to working with tiny analytical samples of THC from standard chemical vendors approved by the DEA. Then, several years ago PSU’s Chemistry Department became one of the first in the nation to obtain a DEA Schedule I research license.

Once Approved, Then Came The Heavy Lifting…Literally

In order use government-issued cannabis in their studies, PSU researchers were obliged by the DEA to store the cannabis in a 700-pound safe that needed to be bolted to the floor of the lab. They also had to install Fort-Knox style steel doors. And all for a tiny amount of cannabis in a state that has been selling legal weed since 2015. These past five decades, cannabis researchers have had to use subpar weed from the University of Mississippi as their only source of research marijuana.

Dr. Robert Strongin in his PSU lab. Courtesy photo.

Can Researchers Now Use Local Weed?

Not quite, not yet.

Though Strongin's team can now purchase federally legal products (usually online) or very small amounts of analytical standards of delta 9 THC from approved vendors, he says it does not necessarily replicate real-world cannabis.

"I've had discussions with colleagues in the field about whether it's okay, or will soon be okay, for us to purchase cannabis dispensary products for testing," Strongin said. PSU, located in downtown Portland is surrounded by dozens of legal cannabis dispensaries. Oregon, after all, is among the states with the most legal marijuana shops per capita in the U.S.

New Drugs, FDA Approval, Big Pharma?

Not anytime soon, says Prof. Strongin.

"FDA approval for new drugs in general is always an arduous and expensive process, and it remains to be seen whether new regulations would encourage pharma," Strongin said. “[New regulations] might initially help encourage smaller startup-type companies with pre-clinical development work (that could eventually) attract interest from big pharma."

But for now, "It still seems no one yet knows much in the way of specifics as far as what more we will be allowed to do when this all takes effect," Strongin concluded.

Now read: EXCLUSIVE: We Analyzed 4,000+ DEA Marijuana Rescheduling Comments; Here’s What Americans Really Think

Photo: Shutterstock

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Posted In: CannabisGovernmentNewsRegulationsEducationLegalTop StoriesExclusivesCannabis ResearchDEADr. Robert StronginJoe BidenPortland State UniversityStories That Matter
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