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Johns Hopkins on Marijuana: Not as Left as One Might Think

By Staff Writer Tarek Meah '20

· Tarek Meah

“The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in time of moral crisis, preserve their neutrality.”

Neutral is not a word one would use to describe Johns Hopkins University. As an international leader in education, the university has made clear its political beliefs. From President Daniels’ letter against Trump’s original immigration ban to Dean Klag’s condemnation of its newest version, University officials have proven to be anything but neutral on the issues that face our country. But, in a letter penned by military veteran Sean T. Kiernan, Kiernan includes this quote as a jab directed at President Daniels.

Kiernan asks the President to explain “the circumstances surrounding the termination by Johns Hopkins of their involvement with MAPS’ randomized controlled research into Cannabis.” Kiernan, who serves as the President of the Weed for Warriors Project, was upset by the university when he received an automated message from the Psychiatry Department stating “If you are calling about the PTSD study, please know we are no longer participating in that study.”

Since 2014, officials at the Johns Hopkins Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit have been planning a clinical trial to measure the efficacy of smoking marijuana as a treatment for PTSD with MAPS – the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies – which serves as the administrator of the study. MAPS received its cannabis from the National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a federal department that has a monopoly on the marijuana used in research trials. Hopkins’ departure from the study came recently after it was revealed, by Arizona psychiatrist Susan Sisley, that NIDA had supplied MAPS with moldy and lead infested samples. After several rounds of testing, the government-provided marijuana had been contaminated with mold and lead levels, but these levels were low enough for the product to be safely consumed.

Hopkins, however, has not responded to questions about whether or not this announcement impacted its decision to withdraw from the study; the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Colorado will continue with their clinical trials. In a statement released by a JHU spokesperson, the decision to withdraw from the study was because the goals of MAPS and those of the university “weren’t in alignment.” Brad Burge, the communications director for MAPS, pointed out that Johns Hopkins wants to conduct research, whereas MAPS wants to focus on the science on top of the policy issues related to the NIDA monopoly for research.

Therein lies the issue: after the marijuana samples were found to be safe for consumption, and two prominent research institutions decided to continue with the clinical research, why has JHU withdrawn from the study? Kiernan implies that it is because that the university will be working with a study that hopes to call to attention a federal department’s monopoly of marijuana produced for research; it just so happens that the federal government also provides more research money to JHU than it does to any other university. Furthermore, no one from Johns Hopkins was mentioned in Sisley’s announcement that the NIDA provided marijuana was low grade. This puts JHU’s  relationship with NIDA on the spot; it seems as if the decision to withdraw is influenced by the promise of a stronger fiscal relationship with NIDA in the years to come.

The final barrier to consider when it comes to the study of marijuana is its label as a Schedule I drug – meaning it is considered to have no medical benefits. For the drug to be moved into the Schedule II category (the legal prescription – under federal law – of marijuana for therapeutic purposes), a clinical trial is the first step. This would also allow MAPS to fight to end NIDA’s monopoly on the production of marijuana for medical purposes, and allow private companies to manufacture the drug legally under federal law.

Kiernan’s dissatisfaction with Johns Hopkins’ decision to withdraw from the study is justified, as it seems that the university took this course of action in order to avoid displeasing its counterparts at NIDA and other health related departments in the federal government. As a university that lauds itself on its progressive political views, what does its neutrality on the subject of medical marijuana say about its purported agenda? As Kiernan so aptly put it, “President Daniels [has] the power and moral imperative to act.”

Image from Wikimedia.

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