A recent decision upholding the federal ban on medical cannabis was a letdown in Maine and the 24 other states where the drug can be prescribed to ease the symptoms of illness.

But the Aug. 11 announcement also offered reason for a more optimistic prognosis: The Drug Enforcement Administration is removing a major roadblock to medical studies of marijuana and advancing long-stalled efforts to research the plant’s value as a medication.

For 46 years, marijuana (along with heroin and LSD) has been a Schedule I drug, with no known medical benefits and “a high potential for abuse.” So when the DEA announced in April that it would soon decide whether to reclassify cannabis, there was widespread hope that the government was rethinking its long-held stance on the drug.

The production, distribution and consumption of marijuana all remain illegal under federal law – a fact that keeps medical cannabis patients and state-licensed suppliers in limbo.

FEDERAL-STATE DISCONNECT

Maine families have had to establish residency in Colorado in order to obtain the cannabis extract that helps their children’s epilepsy. Why? Because that particular strain, Charlotte’s Web, is grown in Colorado. And if parents can’t find something that works at home, they don’t have the option of crossing state lines to get it somewhere else.

Under federal law, that’s drug trafficking, even if they’re transporting strains like Charlotte’s Web that are low in THC, the chemical compound that’s the source of the high.

The disconnect between state and federal law is also tough on Maine’s medical cannabis growers. Handling the proceeds of a marijuana business puts federally chartered banks at risk of money-laundering penalties. So medical cannabis companies can’t take customers’ credit or debit cards, often can’t write checks for their payroll or business expenses and can’t get loans. They wind up doing business in cash, making them targets for robbery and raising concerns about accountability.

Granted, the Obama administration has made a point of saying that medical cannabis businesses are not an enforcement priority. And a U.S. appeals court ruled unanimously Aug. 18 that the Justice Department may no longer spend money to prosecute medical marijuana suppliers who comply with state laws.

But the federal ban on marijuana remains in place, and federal officials have gone after users and suppliers of medical cannabis even in states where medicinal use is legal.

Nonetheless, there are signs of a high-level shift in thinking – namely, that on the same day that the federal government affirmed its prohibition on pot, it also announced that it will expand the number of places allowed to grow and conduct studies with marijuana.

MISSISSIPPI MONOPOLY STALLS STUDIES

Under the previous guidelines, just one federal facility, in Mississippi, could produce and distribute cannabis for federally approved study. To get this government-grown cannabis, scientists had to have a DEA license and the approval of the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which has favored studies focusing on the risks of marijuana use.

As a result, there aren’t many reliable studies on medical cannabis, though preliminary research suggests it can be an effective treatment for conditions including chronic pain, anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis.

Now, anyone with a government-approved research proposal can apply to become a federally authorized cannabis grower, a DEA spokesman recently told the journal Nature.

Scientists won’t have to wait as long to get the plant (slow delivery was an issue with the Mississippi monopoly in place). And because they can grow it themselves, they’ll have a more diverse and reliable supply of cannabis, allowing for the development of specific strains to meet specific medical needs.

Accelerated cannabis research could have obvious benefits for patients. More Maine caregivers are certifying patients to use medical cannabis – over 300 doctors and nurse practitioners in Maine are now giving patients the green light to use marijuana – but it’s not enough to keep up with the number of people who want to try it.

BUILDING AN EVIDENCE-BASED CASE

If studies confirm that medical cannabis is safe and effective, its use as a medication could get FDA approval, making it more affordable (health insurers won’t cover drugs that don’t have the FDA’s endorsement) and paving the way for its acceptance by medical practices and physicians.

For too long, cannabis’ classification as a drug with no medical value has blocked research into whether it does have legitimate uses. The DEA’s decision to expand federal grow sites will facilitate the kind of high-level studies that, as they accumulate, can bolster the case for permanent change to marijuana’s status under federal law and the development of information-based policy that benefits both patients and caregivers.