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Is there hope in dope?

Marijuana use has been illegal in the United States for nearly 70 years. The debates – illegal or legal, medically beneficial or not – have been around just as long.

Recently, these issues made a stop at USF.

Thomas W. Klein, a professor of molecular medicine and interdisciplinary oncology at USF, received a $1.45 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to continue studying marijuana’s influence on the immune system.

“Our research focuses on the effects of cannabinoids on immunology and the host resistance to infection,” Klein said.

Kirsie Stansfield, who taught Drugs Behavior and Society at USF, believes there are two major reasons behind the illegality of marijuana. One reason is the gateway theory.

“This essentially says that you go through this progression of smoking cigarettes and drinking beers or drinking alcohol and using marijuana,” Stansfield said. “That step to using marijuana, something that is already illegal and something that has more of an addiction potential per say than alcohol, is more likely to lead you to using heavier drugs like cocaine and heroin.”

Stansfield also speculates that because the drug has been demonized in the United States, society might be afraid if it were made legal. Rather than legalizing marijuana, Stansfield believes researchers will continue to isolate the active ingredients in marijuana and offer those to the public.

Klein agrees with that line of thought. The chemistry associated with research pertaining to marijuana has gotten to a point where synthesizing THC in a laboratory is fairly easy, he said. Research is moving away from marijuana itself and instead focusing on synthesized THC.

“There is a lot of research being done, but none of it is really marijuana,” Klein said. “Virtually, my experience (with) the studies in humans that are going on (is that) these people are being given chemicals; they’re not being given marijuana cigarettes to smoke.”

The prescription drug Marinol is essentially synthesized THC. It has been used in the United States to stimulate appetite and combat nausea in AIDS patients. Marinol is classified as a schedule III controlled substance according to the DEA.

“Certainly the smoking aspect is reason enough not to do it, in moderation there doesn’t appear to be any negative health effects,” Klein said. “This is why it’s not particularly unethical to give people Marinol.”

There have been three attempts to reschedule marijuana. Thus far, two have failed and one is still in the process of being evaluated. Despite recent studies with marijuana, prospects of it being legalized in the future don’t seem bright.

“A lot of it is kind of political, as far as once a drug becomes illegal. Alcohol is an exception, it’s not going to go back,” Stansfield said. “If a drug becomes illegal, it is going to be incredibly hard for society to accept it as a drug that is beneficial for use.”

An article in the Hastings Center Report suggests that the battle to legalize marijuana is less a battle against drugs and more a struggle between state and federal power.

“The battle over legalizing marijuana for medical purposes is, at base, a battle of federalism – in other words, about the balance of power between states and federal government,” states the report.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 95 million Americans over the age of 12 have tried marijuana at least once, making it the most frequently used illegal drug in the United States. With so many reported users it is curious that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has classified the active ingredient in marijuana, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) as a schedule I controlled substance.

Title 21 of the United States Code governs food and drugs. Statute 812 (b) specifies the findings that the government must make in order to classify a drug in a certain schedule.

For schedule I drugs the findings are as follows: The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse, the drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision. Heroin and MDMA, the main ingredient in the designer drug ecstasy, are also schedule 1 controlled substances.

“In my opinion, and what research has shown, the potential for abuse in marijuana, the potential for dependency is pretty low, MDMA is fairly moderate, and heroin is very high,” Stansfield said.