The Notable Absence of Regulating Cannabis in FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s Keynote Address to FDLI 2018

by Tara Sklar

At the Food and Drug Law Institute (FDLI) 2018 Annual Conference, the Commissioner of Food and Drugs, Scott Gottlieb, gave the Keynote Address to kick-off the largest turnout yet for this event of over 900 attendees. Commissioner Gottlieb’s remarks started off with how previous FDA Commissioners used this opportunity to recap the past year, but he would be different, he would lay out the strategic priorities for next year.

The room went nearly silent, as Commissioner Gottlieb steadily went through the many sectors the agency oversees, and where he believes the FDA will play a larger leadership role, including in the epidemics of addition (opioid crisis), drug costs, and greater access to generic competition. He laid out a vision that most people in the room would probably subscribe to, including “You’re public health minded, and work hard to deliver innovations that’ll advance human health. The problem is that a few bad apples, that game the system, can tarnish the entire brand of an otherwise principled industry.”[1] Close to the end of his thirty-minute speech, Commissioner Gottlieb firmly addressed the companies that produce e-cigarettes, and said, “If you target kids, then we’re going to target you.”[2]

Indeed, Commissioner Gottlieb mentioned so many FDA strategic priorities, and in such unequivocal detail for how they plan to regulate, that when the President & CEO of the FDLI, Amy Comstock Rick, thanked him and introduced the follow-up panel to discuss the issues Commissioner Gottlieb raised, she said, “We reserved one-hour in the conference to discuss Commissioner Gottlieb’s Keynote Address, but we may need five.” However, there was an area that was not brought up in Commissioner Gottlieb’s wide-ranging speech, despite its very active place in the media and scientific journals calling for the FDA to have a greater role, and more consistent guidance, and this prominent area is the future regulation of cannabis. Read More

The Opioid Crisis Requires Evidence-Based Solutions, Part II: How the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction Ignored Promising Medical Treatments

By Mason Marks

Last year more than 64,000 Americans died of drug overdose, which is “now the leading cause of death” in people under 50. Opioids kill an estimated 91 Americans each day and are responsible for most drug-related deaths in the US. This public health crisis requires solutions that are supported by science and reason instead of emotion and political ideology. In Part I of this three-part series, I discuss how the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis misinterpreted scientific studies and used data to support unfounded conclusions. In this second part of the series, I explore how the Opioid Commission ignored medical interventions that are used successfully in the U.S. and abroad. In Part III, I will discuss non-medical interventions such as drug checking and safe injection sites. The Commission’s failure to consider these options is likely driven by emotions such as fear and disgust rather than a careful review of scientific evidence.

Medical marijuana is currently accepted in 29 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. It is also permitted in at least 10 countries. However, the Opioid Commission outright rejected calls to consider the use of medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids for managing pain. Prior to the Commission’s first meeting, it solicited input from industry and members of the public on how to address the opioid crisis. In response, it received over 8,000 public comments. According to VICE News, which obtained the documents by submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, most comments were submitted by individuals urging the Commission to “consider medical marijuana as a solution to the opioid epidemic.” A spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a body of the Executive Branch that provides administrative support to the Opioid Commission, reports receiving “more than 7,800 public comments relating to marijuana.” Despite these comments, in its final report, the Commission dismissed the notion that marijuana should play a role in treating chronic pain and opioid addiction. Its report cited a recent study from the American Journal of Psychiatry, which concluded that marijuana use was associated with an increased risk of opioid abuse. However, this study relied on data that was collected over twelve years ago. One of its authors, Columbia Medical School Professor Mark Olfson, told CNN that if the data were collected today, they could yield different results.

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The Opioid Crisis Requires Evidence-Based Solutions, Part I: How the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction Misinterpreted Scientific Studies

By Mason Marks

The opioid crisis kills at least 91 Americans each day and has far-reaching social and economic consequences for us all. As lawmakers explore solutions to the problem, they should ensure that new regulations are based on scientific evidence and reason rather than emotion or political ideology. Though emotions should motivate the creation of policies and legislation, solutions to the opioid epidemic should be grounded in empirical observation rather than feelings of anger, fear, or disgust. Legislators must be unafraid to explore bold solutions to the crisis, and some measured risks should be taken. In this three-part series on evidence-backed solutions to the opioid crisis, I discuss proposals under consideration by the Trump Administration including recent recommendations of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. Though the Commission made some justifiable proposals, it misinterpreted the conclusions of scientific studies and failed to consider evidence-based solutions used in other countries. This first part of the series focuses on the misinterpretation of scientific data.

Last year more than 64,000 Americans died of drug overdose, which is “now the leading cause of death” in people under 50. Opioids are responsible for most of these deaths. By comparison, the National Safety Council estimates about 40,000 Americans died in auto crashes last year, and the Centers for Disease Control reports that 38,000 people were killed by firearms. Unlike deaths due to cars and firearms, which have remained relatively stable over the past few years, opioid deaths have spiked abruptly. Between 2002 and 2015, U.S. opioid-related deaths nearly tripled (from about 12,000 deaths in 2002 to over 33,000 in 2015). Last year, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl contributed to over 20,000 deaths and accounted for the sharpest increase in opioid fatalities (See blue line in Fig. 1 below). Read More

The Problematic Patchwork of State Medical Marijuana Laws – New Research

By Abraham Gutman

The legal status of medical marijuana in the United States is unique. On one hand, the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug with no acceptable medical use and high potential for abuse. On the other hand, as of February 1, 2017, 27 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws authorizing the use of medical marijuana. This discrepancy between federal and state regulation has led to a wide variation in the ways that medical marijuana is regulated on the state level.

In a study published today in Addiction, our team of researchers from the Temple University Center for Public Health Law Research and the RAND Drug Policy Research Center finds that state laws mimic some aspects of federal prescription drug and controlled substances laws, and regulatory strategies used for alcohol, tobacco and traditional medicines.

In the past, studies on medical marijuana laws have focused on the spillover effect of medical marijuana to recreational use and not on whether the laws are regulating marijuana effectively as a medicine. Using policy surveillance methods to analyze the state of medical marijuana laws and their variations across states, this study lays the groundwork for future research evaluating the implementation, impacts, and efficacy of these laws.

The study focuses on three domains of medical marijuana regulation that were in effect as of February 1, 2017: patient protections and requirements, product safety, and dispensary regulation.

Here’s some of what we found:

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The Federal Government Should Consider Medical Marijuana a Potential Ally in the Fight Against Opioid Addiction

By Shailin Thomas

The United States is in the midst of what many are calling an opioid epidemic. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, more than 1.9 million people in the U.S. have a substance use disorders involving prescription pain medications, and another 580,000 have substance abuse issues with heroin. The human costs of these rates of addiction are staggering.   Of the approximately 50,000 lethal drug overdoses that happen each year, almost 20,000 are the result of prescription opioids, and another 10,000 are the result of heroin. While prescription painkillers traditionally aren’t as dangerous as heroin, the connection between the two is well established. According to a 2013 survey, about 80% of heroin users started out abusing opioid painkillers.

Despite continued efforts at nearly every level of government, the rates of opioid addiction and overdose have continued to climb. However, researchers have identified an unlikely ally that may have quietly been slowing the rise of opioid use in certain states: medical marijuana.

A study recently released by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health suggests that medical marijuana availability is linked to decreases in opioid usage. The study looked at opioid prevalence in autopsy reports from fatal car accidents over 14 years, and found that states that passed medical marijuana laws in that period saw a relative decrease in opioid prevalence compared to states that didn’t. While this study is making a splash, it’s just the most recent piece in a long line of research into the connection between medical marijuana availability and opioid use. One study published in Health Affairs in July showed that states which implemented medical marijuana laws between 2010-2013 saw a significant decrease in Medicare Part D prescriptions filled for medications for which marijuana is a possible alternative therapy — including opioids. Another study from 2014 showed a 25% decrease in deaths from prescription pain medication overdoses in states that implemented medical marijuana laws. Read More

FDA’s Relationship with Marijuana: It’s Complicated

By Elizabeth Guo

Marijuana and marijuana-derived products are top of mind for state legislatures these days. On March 10, the Virginia state legislature passed a bill legalizing cannabidiol oil, a marijuana-derived product, for patients who suffer from epilepsy. Other legislatures are actively debating measures to legalize cannabis-related products in their states, and many of these legislative proposals would allow cannabis-use for patients suffering from specific medical conditions. Last week, the Alabama state legislature debated a bill that would allow people to take cannabidiol to treat certain conditions, and Utah recently defeated a bill that would have allowed people with certain debilitating conditions to use a marijuana-related extract.

As more states pass bills allowing patients to use marijuana-derived products, will state laws clash with federal policies implemented by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)?

Marijuana is complicated. Marijuana refers to the dried leaves and flowers of the cannabis plant. All marijuana plants contain a mixture of molecules, including cannabinoids. Different cannabinoids can have different effects, and scientists have identified more than 200 different cannabinoids from marijuana plants. Some of the most well known cannaboids in marijuana include tetrahydrocannibonol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), and archidonoyl ethanolamide (anandamide). Read More

Being Blunt About Product Safety: The problems with the lack of uniformity in medical marijuana laws

By Holly Jones, BA, JD candidate

How can the federal government ensure consumer safety in an industry that distributes a substance the federal government classifies as an illegal drug? The federal government effectively banned the use of marijuana nationwide with the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, classifying marijuana as a Schedule I substance according. Regardless of this federal prohibition, 23 states and Washington, DC have legalized marijuana for medical use. A lack of federal legalization allows states to independently enact their own distinct medical marijuana laws.

In a dataset released yesterday on LawAtlas.org, the distinctions become clear — there are currently 24 variations of medical marijuana program product safety guidelines in the United States, some of which bear little, if any, resemblance to one another. While some states, like Connecticut and Massachusetts, provide incredibly comprehensive guidelines for their medical marijuana programs, others provide skeletal legislation and instead grant a great deal of autonomy to local jurisdictions.

While variation may allow researchers to more effectively evaluate the approaches, from a patient-safety perspective, uniformity has its advantages. Read More

Asking the Right Question about Football

By David Orentlicher
[Cross-posted at HealthLawProf Blog and orentlicher.tumblr.com.]

In his New York Times op-ed today, former Denver tight end Nate Jackson explains why the NFL should prefer that its players use marijuana to medicate their pain rather than to rely on prescription drugs that can have serious side effects and promote dangerous addictions. Jackson explains quite effectively why he needed marijuana during his six-year career:

I broke my tibia, dislocated my shoulder, separated both shoulders, tore my groin off the bone once and my hamstring off the bone twice, broke fingers and ribs, tore my medial collateral ligament, suffered brain trauma, etc. Most players have similar medical charts. And every one of them needs the medicine.

But to ask whether players should use marijuana or legal drugs to treat their pain is to ask the wrong question. As I write in a forthcoming symposium on concussion in sports in the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, Read More