NIH Blowing Smoke on Medical Cannabis?
Christian Bogner, MD
Cannabinoid Signaling Research
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the primary agency of the United States government responsible for biomedical and public health research. Surprisingly, for the past half-century, the NIH has paid Israeli researchers millions of dollars to study the effects of the medical cannabis. What has been the return on investment for that long-standing partnership? The American people have the right to know, right?
We live in a pivotal time in the cannabis revolution, under the gavel of Jeff Sessions, our Attorney General. His personal vendetta against the plant is so biased and aggressive, it almost seems surreal. Not only did he say that “Good people don’t smoke Marijuana“. Sessions goes on:
“I mean, we need grown-ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized. It ought not to be minimized, that it’s in fact a very real danger. Lives will be impacted. Families will be broken up. Children will be damaged because of the difficulties their parents have, and people may be psychologically impacted the rest of their lives with marijuana.”
Chuck Rosenberg, head of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) thinks that “Medical cannabis is a joke.”
When there is 2.3 million patients in the US relying on the plant as their medicine (legally) , we need the best evidence there is to warn about dangers, but also teach about the benefits! Just recently I witnessed a child with an active seizure receive an intranasal spray that was cannabis based. The seizure stopped within seconds. Medical cannabis is not a joke. There have been tremendous gains in understanding the medicinal properties of this plant in all of its divine molecular artistry. As of this year, several pharmaceutical “cannabis-like” synthetic drugs—all in the name of patents—have been approved with more than a half dozen to follow. And yet, the actual plant remains highly illegal from a federal vista.
Take Insys Therapeutics, for example. A pharmaceutical company that was one of the chief financial backers of the opposition to marijuana legalization in Arizona recently, received preliminary approval from the FDA for Syndros, a synthetic marijuana drug.
This begs the question:
Are pharmaceutical companies exploiting the federal healthcare agencies?
Although making some cash from a plant behind our backs sounds extraneous, the societal impact is shocking. The FDA’s classification of cannabis on the Controlled Substance Act and the enforcement of cannabis violations by the DEA are having a devastating ripple effect on the entire system. Recently, the Human Rights Watch reported that, “on any given day at least 137,000 men and women are behind bars in the United States for drug possession .” Law enforcement agencies report more arrests for marijuana possession alone than for all violent crimes combined. Sadly, a black adult is 2.5 times more likely to get arrested than a white adult for drug possession, despite similar usage rates. The ones suffering the most are families in poor communities of color.
Let’s shed some light on modern federal prohibition tactics. It’s time for solid counter-arguments on why it’s long overdue to take the U.S. healthcare medical industrial complex and treatment of disease in a new direction.
Dr. Tom Price recently took the post of Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) overseeing the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), among other healthcare agencies in the CDC, NIH and FDA. One goal of this article is to encourage the restructuring of these departments and end prohibition, which is far more detrimental to society than the one on alcohol in the 1920s. Chuck Rosenberg (DEA) and Sessions (AG) are seasoned attorneys with no medical background. Who advises these gentlemen is Dr. Volkow, head of the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA).
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
According to the National Institute of Health,
“The mission of NIDA is to advance science on the causes and consequences of drug use and addiction and to apply that knowledge to improve individual and public health.”
In October 1992, NIDA became part of the National Institutes of Health and United States Department of Health and Human Services.
Dr. Nora Volkow – Director – NIDA
Since 2003, Dr. Nora Volkow has been the director of NIDA. Dr. Volkow is the great granddaughter of Leon Trotsky, who was a Marxist revolutionary, Soviet politician and the founder and commander of the Red Army. He was an irreconcilable atheist. For some Trotsky was a hero; for others he was outright ruthless. Trotsky believed that
“We must rid ourselves once and for all of the Quaker-Papist babble about the sanctity of human life.”
These core human believes are often carried through generations. Dr. Volkow obviously had no influence on her grandfather’s actions. Thus, let’s disregard any religious beliefs and focus on what we have at hand.
Born and raised in Mexico—where Leon Trotsky was assassinated in 1940—Dr. Volkow earned her medical degree from the National University of Mexico, immigrated to the United States, and then completed a psychiatry residency in New York City.
The Opioid Disaster
Drug overdose deaths in 2016 exceeded 59,000 people, the largest annual jump ever recorded in the United States, according to preliminary data compiled by The New York Times. When we look at some hard statistics from the National Institute of Health, we can conclude in the graph below…
…that a decade after Dr. Volkow took office at NIDA in 2003, opioid deaths have more than doubled. The U.S. makes up 4.6 percent of the world’s populations, but consumes 81 percent of the world supply of oxycodone . Every 15 minutes a poor citizen dies because of opioid toxicity.
From 2004 until 2015, Dr. Volkow earned just over $3 million . She falls in the highest-paid ten percent of employees in the National Institutes of Health. Her pay is 46 percent higher than the average Medical Officer across all agencies. Why this advantage? These death numbers are catastrophic, yet her salary has kept increasing .
In 2016, Dr. Volkow requested $1.1 billion dollars from the federal budget, $33 million more than in 2015 . The NIH is funding NIDA to “improve individual and public health” by examining the current best science and present possible solutions. Opioids are killing well over 10 times more Americans a year than all terrorist attacks of the last 16 years combined . On NIDA’s website, one may discover the latest on how magnets may cure cocaine addiction , but promising ideas are lacking. People are dying and it does not look promising. They are scratching their heads at the NIH. Meanwhile, NIDA is great at reporting data:
“In 2015, two million people had a prescription opioid use disorder and 591,000 suffered from a heroin use disorder; prescription drug misuse alone cost the nation $78.5 billion in healthcare, law enforcement, and lost productivity.”
Thanks, but where did the rest of the billion dollar of federal funding go?
NIDA and Cannabis
The US National Library of Medicine at the NIH (PubMed) reveals 16,630 scientific articles on cannabis and 25,648 on marijuana (marijuana and cannabis are essentially the same, but a different story for another time). There are now 29 states with cannabis programs, essentially ignoring NIDA’s supportive stand on prohibition. The states’ cannabis programs were implemented due to the hard work of certain individuals, e.g. parents fighting with heroic state representatives for their children. They were the ones who dug deep into this sort of research. They achieved legislative changes. There are hundreds of articles written about the benefits of cannabis. It would take a book to highlight them all.
The studies NIDA focuses on to defend the status quo
Short term Cannabis effects (according to NIDA)
“altered senses (for example, seeing brighter colors), altered sense of time, changes in mood, impaired body movement, difficulty with thinking and problem-solving, impaired memory .”
Some of Dr. Bogner’s most intelligent patients are using cannabis, so let us compare their alleged “side effects” to some of the side effects of synthroid, currently the most commonly prescribed medication in the United States:
Seizures, lack or slowing of normal growth in children, chest pain or discomfort, decreased urine output, difficult or labored breathing, difficulty with swallowing, dilated neck veins, extreme fatigue, fainting, fast, slow, irregular, pounding, or racing heartbeat or pulse, fever, heat intolerance .
It appears that synthroid has many more possible serious effects than cannabis. I lost track of how many patients would have loved to wean of their methadone and use cannabis in my office. Many fear they cannot, since they may lose their jobs.
Long term Cannabis effects (according to NIDA)
“Marijuana also affects brain development. When people begin using marijuana as teenagers, the drug may reduce thinking, memory, and learning functions and affect how the brain builds connections between the areas necessary for these functions. Marijuana’s effects on these abilities may last a long time or even be permanent .”
The above statements are controversial to say the least. Before you take it as scientific fact, I urge you to investigate what they base their statements on.
In order to claim that cannabis may permanently injure our brains, NIDA, with its billions of dollars annual budget, should be transparent and provide bulletproof evidence that medical cannabis is harmful to people. The best science from the U.S. federal database offers 25,648 research papers on cannabinoid signaling research. According to former President Barack Obama’s 2004 memoir, as a high school kid, he would smoke “in a white classmate’s sparkling new van,” he would smoke “in the dorm room of some brother,” and he would smoke “on the beach with a couple of Hawaiian kids.”
Besides Obama, Sarah Palin, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Matt Damon, Martha Stuart, Morgan Freeman, David Letterman, Ted Turner, Brad Pitt, Michael Bloomberg, George Clooney, Sanjay Gupta, Rand Paul, John Kerry, Oprah Winfrey, there is many more who have either tried and liked cannabis and/or currently are cannabis consumers. According to Bill Gates, “Marijuana was the drug of choice.” Michael Phelps used cannabis and won more gold medals (28) than any Olympian. Ever!
In all seriousness, according to our government, here is the best evidence of the harmful effects of this plant.
Cannabis is Dangerous – NIDA’s (embarrassing) case
NIDA presents this New Zealand study , which concluded that people who started smoking marijuana heavily in their teens and had an ongoing ‘marijuana use disorder’ lost an average of 8 IQ points between the ages 13 and 38. Statistically speaking, it found a positive association between, on the one hand, adolescent-onset cannabis use and dependence and, on the other hand, a decline in IQ from childhood to adulthood
Why NIDA is wrong to quote this study to defend prohibition
The University of Oxford (United Kingdom) criticized the above chosen study by NIDA, elegantly realizing that they did not account for the possible impact of socioeconomic status during different epoches of life, concluding that
“the causal effects estimated in Meier et al. are likely to be overestimates, and that the true effect could be zero.”
The findings are also completely inconsistent with separate, better controlled longitudinal studies, e.g.
In a 2016 study, researchers at Cornell University  looked at more than 3,000 adolescent twins. The conclusion was that
“Marijuana-using twins failed to show significantly greater IQ decline relative to their abstinent siblings. Evidence from these two samples suggests that observed declines in measured IQ may not be a direct result of marijuana exposure but rather attributable to familial factors that underlie both marijuana initiation and low intellectual attainment.”
Another study in 2016 coming from the University of London  studied 2235 teenagers in a longitudinal study and concluded that
“Adolescent cannabis use is not associated with IQ or educational performance once adjustment is made for potential confounds, in particular adolescent cigarette use. Modest cannabis use in teenagers may have less cognitive impact than epidemiological surveys of older cohorts have previously suggested.”
Last, but definitely not least, the original author of the study above, Madeline Meier, just released a new, follow-up study this July in 2017 .
She looked at 1,989 twins and concluded that
“Short-term cannabis use in adolescence does not appear to cause IQ decline or impair executive functions, even when cannabis use reaches the level of dependence.”
More Bad Science quoted by NIDA
“Adverse Health effects of Marijuana use” 
Dr. Volkow published this study in 2014. It’s quoted often by NIDA as rote defense on the current federal cannabis prohibition. The most damaging accusations come in the following paragraph:
Dr. Volkow writes in her conclusion that cannabis causes brain damage. The above statement is a conclusion from another scientific paper, as reflected in the little number 12 at the end. This indicates the reference to her claim. Let’s look at people they compared. The paper quoted by her compared 59 cannabis users to just 33 non-users. A small, unbalanced sampling. Hardly conclusive from a peer-reviewed science vista.
A review with some great concerns:
- NIDA claims cannabis causes brain damage by quoting this study that compared 59 cannabis users with 33 non-users (this is power bias)
- The cannabis users were significantly heavier smokers of cigarettes than non-users (we know there are approximately 600 ingredients in cigarettes. When burned, they create more than 7,000 chemicals) (selection bias)
- Cannabis users had an IQ of 3 lower than non-users. Is this even noticeable clinically? (myside bias)
Instead of providing good science from the data at hand, NIDA appears to get paid to be the agency gatekeeper instead, having the most critical say with the most weight of any agency in the federal process of re-scheduling.
Medical Marijuana Laws and Cannabis Use – Intersections of Health and Policy
In the April 2017 issue of JAMA Psychiatry , Dr. Volkow gives us the most current view of the agency on cannabis. The conclusion was that
“While research continues to gather evidence to that end, clinicians are faced with the reality reinforced by the findings from Hasin et al that cannabis use is increasing among adults living in states that have legalized medical marijuana.”
Dr. Volkow quotes another NIDA funded study  to conclude this. If we look at it, you can find that from 2001 to 2013, illicit cannabis use went up to a maximum of 7% in Colorado, 5% in California and lower in other states. This sounds like a terrible trend. But let us see what message is relayed here. First, there is no serious health adverse affects reported. Simply saying that more people violated the law (7 more percent used the plant illegally) is a policy issue, not a health concern. Where is the data demonstrating HARM? Cannabis use “disorder” is not a disorder if the individual chose that modality instead of opioids or other dangerous pharmaceuticals and if there is no good science demonstrating compromise of intelligence.
If we look at the most recent data reported from Colorado , only 3% of registered marijuana patients were under the age of 21. Three years into regulated sales of recreational cannabis, the Retail Marijuana Public Health Advisory Committee says calls to poison control and marijuana-related emergency room visits are down, even though overall consumption of pot remains steady . Marijuana is not Colorado adults’ drug of choice: About 6 percent of those surveyed said they used marijuana daily or near-daily. That compares to 16 percent for daily or near-daily tobacco use and 22 percent for daily or near-daily alcohol use . Why is NIDA continuing to waste so much money on these senseless studies on cannabis (which are using data from half a decade back), when they should be focusing on problems that can cause actual DEATH, e.g. alcohol, cigarettes or opioids?
NIDA reports to other federal agencies that cannabis is dangerous. NIDA concludes this by backing FALSE science that has been disproven .,,. Our federal government is defending the status quo of cannabis by quoting FALSE science.
Cannabis – The complete opposite of what the government tells us
As mentioned above, the plant that is kept behind federal bars is one of the most studied plant ever. 25,648 Pubmed articles speak for themselves. As quoted above, we can see that there is incredible evidence that cannabis does not make you dumber. But is it possible that this plant can actually be good for us? Here is some of the top summaries that reflect benefits for human disease.
Some of the best research summary findings come from our own Ivy-league Universities, summarized by organizations like NORML or the National Academy of Sciences:
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) lists 23 medical conditions with excellent research backup for each 
“There exists little if any scientific basis to justify the federal government’s present prohibitive stance and there is ample scientific and empirical evidence to rebut it.”
In early 2017, a comprehensive review (400 pages) was conducted by the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C.
“We found conclusive or substantial evidence (ranging in modest to moderate effect) for benefit from cannabis or cannabinoids for chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, and patient-reported symptoms of spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis.” 
US Patent 6630507 – Cannabinoids are protecting your brain cells – Yours truly: Unites States Government
Owned by HHS, United States patent 6630507 demonstrates how cannabinoids from the plant protect brain cells and are helpful for Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological diseases including stroke and Parkinson’s disease . NIDA is directly contradicting the agency it receives funding from (NIH, HHS)!
The Shafer Commision Report
In the early 1970s, President Nixon appointed Gov. Raymond P. Shafer of Pennsylvania, a former prosecutor with a “law-and-order” reputation, to run a commission that would demonstrate enough evidence to re-affirm Marijuana to the “most dangerous” list, Schedule I.
The Shafer Commission “recorded thousands of pages of transcripts of formal and informal hearings, solicited all points of view, including those of public officials, community leaders, professional experts and students. They conducted separate surveys of opinion among district attorneys, judges, probation officers, clinicians, university health officials and ‘free clinic’ personnel. They commissioned more than 50 projects, ranging from a study of the effects of marijuana on man to a field survey of enforcement of the marijuana laws in six metropolitan jurisdictions.” Shafer brought his report to the White House March 21, 1972. It was 1,184 pages long. Some interesting findings:
“No significant physical, biochemical, or mental abnormalities could be attributed solely to their marihuana smoking.
No valid stereotype of a marihuana user or non-user can be drawn.
Young people who choose to experiment with marihuana are fundamentally the same people, socially and psychologically, as those who use alcohol and tobacco.
No verification is found of a causal relationship between marihuana use and subsequent heroin use.
Most users, young and old, demonstrate an average or above-average degree of social functioning, academic achievement, and job performance.
The weight of the evidence is that marihuana does not cause violent or aggressive behavior; if anything marihuana serves to inhibit the expression of such behavior.
Marihuana is not generally viewed by participants in the criminal justice community as a major contributing influence in the commission of delinquent or criminal acts.
Neither the marihuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety.
Research has not yet proven that marihuana use significantly impairs driving ability or performance.”
-Shafer Commission report 3/21/1972
Nixon response to the media 2 days after its release:
“If we move the line to the other side and accept the use of this drug, how can we draw the line against other illegal drugs”?
Shafer was fired, his work was ignored.His report has never been disproven.
The NIH funding of Cannabis research in Israel
Professor Raphael Mechoulam, based in Israel, is the world expert on cannabis research. He calls cannabis a “neglected pharmacological treasure trove . “ The fascinating medicinal properties of cannabis are mirrored in Professor Mechoulam’s work. He discovered the THC molecule in the 1960s and since has co-authored four books and has published over 390 research papers on endo- (=our own) and phyto- (=plant)cannabinoids. Interestingly enough, the NIH has funded his research for the past 50 years.
Mechoulam on his NIH funding:
“As a few young people in the US were apparently using cannabis in the 1960s (and later), NIH wanted to know all about it. Although NIH does not generally fund foreign researchers, they made an exception in my case. They never interfered with my research and they never asked me (or suggested) to go into any specific direction .”
Every year, NIDA has its annual meeting where various topics are addressed. During the 2011 meeting, NIDA awarded a lifetime achievement/discovery award  to Israeli researcher Raphael Mechoulam.
Dr. Mechoulam did nothing wrong. Who wouldn’t want to get paid to study the healing effects of a plant? He did so and stands on my imaginary Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine shelf. The problem clearly originates in Maryland, somewhere within the four miles that include the physical perimeters of the NIDA and NIH headquarters. The definition of “exploit” is to “make full use of and derive benefit from (a resource).” This is scientific treason committed by NIDA.
We are paying another country to do cannabis research, so pharmaceutical companies can develop drugs that mimic cannaboids that allegedly have the same or similar beneficial outcomes, yet bring more harmful side effects. There is nothing wrong in providing a product to consumers. It is criminal, however, when the government lets big pharma cash in on cannabis-like drugs and at the same time keeps hundreds of thousands of our citizens locked up in jail for just possessing the plant (which made the drug for pharma in the first place).
In order to create change for the better, the federal government needs to keep their involvement in the science of cannabis very limited and instead focus on the opioid, alcohol, cigarette and obesity crises. Uncle Sam has had its shot at it for too long and has misled the American people, becoming part of the propaganda in neither allowing the science to govern the natural course of medical cannabis research and development, nor allowing its legalization at the federal level.
Re-scheduling cannabis is not the answer, however. It is long past time to de-criminalize cannabis to liberate the sacred plant and take it off the DEA’s Controlled Substance Act.
The effects on the economy
Jeffrey A. Miron, a senior lecturer in economics at Harvard University, wrote a report that concludes that legalization would reduce state and federal deficits by eliminating expenditure on prohibition enforcement—arrests, prosecutions, and incarceration—and by allowing governments to collect tax revenue on legalized sales. Approximately $8.7 billion of the savings would result from legalization of marijuana.
Dr. Price’s HHS owns the patent on the neuroprotective effects of cannabinoids. Not surprisingly, the patent quoted 27 of the finest cannabis research papers from the world experts on the subject . Cannabis is helpful for treating devastating neurological diseases and may be helpful in the opioid withdrawal and autism spectrum disorder realms, as well.
Dr. Price and the HHS should give the patent back to Mother Earth. She, in kind, will give it back to the people. We will save lives; we will save the government at the federal and state levels billions for years to come; we will revolutionize healthcare. The time is now.
Christian Bogner, MD