alec stone
Alec Stone MA, MPA, ONS Public Affairs Director

Medical cannabis has been approved for use in more than 33 states, many of which have decriminalized its use as well, and a health policy wave has spread across the country through state referendums to ease the burden for legalizing cannabis for health purposes. It’s a different world than it was 30 years ago, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is frequently called to testify before Congress to address concerns and questions from lawmakers.

As a schedule I drug according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, medical cannabis has considerable federal restrictions on use, which affects National Institutes of Health funding and budget allocations for research. NIDA Director Nora Volkow, MD, testified before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee in January 2020 to clarify aspects of the drug and enlighten committee members on the science behind the mysterious plant.

“In 2018, 43.5 million people reported using cannabis in the past year, making it the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States,” Volkvow said. “Although cannabis has been legalized for medical use in many states, it remains a schedule I substance under the Federal Controlled Substances Act, and it does not have U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for any indication.”

Volkow indicated the potential medical benefits for certain patients—those with AIDS and some cancers—but that it was not an alternative to other approved medications. The results of a NIDA report stated that pain and improving patient-reported spasticity were found to be the two symptoms most relieved with cannabis. Volkow noted a lack of comprehensive studies.

“However, in general, adequate and well controlled studies are lacking, which means that individuals across the country are using cannabis strains and extracts that have not undergone the rigorous clinical trials required to show they are safe and effective for medical use and are not regulated for consistency or quality,” Volkow said.

Patients with cancer are using cannabis, and nurses must be able to answer questions, address issues, and guide their patients to understand the important factors and safety issues with cannabis use. Learn more about cannabis’s impact on cancer care and earn free nursing professional development contact hours by listening to the Oncology Nursing Podcast.