BOULDER, Colo. (CN) — When customers speak, Medically Correct CEO Rick Scarpello listens.
“Quiq just came around from consumers saying, 'I want it to be more like smoking,'” Scarpello said of the fast-acting cannabis brand of topicals and edibles that launched last year. “People said, 'Look, I want to take this, I want to feel it right away.'”
While 37 states have approved medical marijuana to treat dozens of health conditions, the companies putting products in the hands of consumers rely not on lab-run clinical trials but on customer feedback to assess whether smoking or ingesting certain products eases pain or makes people feel energized or sleepy.
“We’re very limited in what we can and can't do,” Scarpello said. “The first few years of our business, the only legal way to test products would be to make a product, put it on the market and then go buy it.”
Colorado's Marijuana Enforcement Division now allows infused-products manufacturers like Medically Correct to bring home a limited number of products for development and quality control.
Scarpello is a believer — he believes cannabis heals and his company helps sick people. But he is also quick to acknowledge the industry needs more scientific research behind it.
“I can’t say, ‘Hey, this will take away your pain in your arm.’ Honestly, I'd be a snake oil salesman. There's no clinical studies or double-blind trials to show that,” Scarpello said.
Federal law continues to block the clinical research needed to support or debunk the general efficacy of cannabis as a treatment for certain illnesses, much less the benefits of specific products.
“We have people saying, ‘Hey, take this strain if you need to sleep.’ Well, each strain has a different concentration of THC, but it's also got all these other compounds. There are over 100 cannabinoids and then we have bioactive lipids called terpenes,” said Dr. Kent Vrana, director of the state certified medical marijuana research center at Penn State's College of Medicine. “No one has studied to say that a strain is good for a disease.”
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency classifies cannabis with high levels of psychoactive THC as a Schedule I drug, meaning it's deemed to have high potential for abuse and no approved medical use. To study the plant, researchers must obtain a Schedule I license and purchase products from a lab approved by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or NIDA.
A gulf, therefore, stands between what products the federal government approves for research and what consumers can buy down the street.
As a growing number of Americans consume cannabis each year for therapeutic reasons, understanding long-term and short-term benefits — and risks — becomes increasingly urgent.
“This is the first time we're talking about a drug that is very common, that is legalized for recreational use and legalized for medicinal use,” said Yasmin Hurd, director of the Addiction Institute at Mount Sinai. “It's very different for people from alcohol because we don't prescribe alcohol.”
“There has to be a better way of conducting clinical research so that researchers’ hands aren't tied so tightly that they can’t conduct the research. But of course, research that is monitored, where the results must be published whether or not the results are negative or positive,” Hurd added.
In place of clinical trials, some researchers have developed creative observational studies.
Cinnamon Bidwell, an assistant professor of cognitive science at the University of Colorado Boulder, was studying drug abuse when cannabis became legalized for recreational sales. She wanted to help fill in the gaps between policy and empirical scientific information.