NIH expert warns against legalizing pot

Getty Images

A director from the National Institutes of Health warned House lawmakers Tuesday against legalizing marijuana use, saying it could act as a gateway drug.

The testimony from Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, highlighted the split among federal agencies on drug policy and comes as the Obama administration takes a hands-off approach to state enforcement of marijuana laws.

ADVERTISEMENT
Volkow told the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations subpanel studies show that changes to brain chemistry after alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana use can prime users for harder drugs.

Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) highlighted Volkow’s testimony, which he said came at a critical moment in the debate over the nation’s drug laws.

“Right now, this nation is in a significant experiment to legalize marijuana,” he said.

Polls show public opinion in support of marijuana legalization growing. Attorney General Eric Holder also told lawmakers earlier this month that the administration was open to reclassifying marijuana as a less dangerous drug.

Burgess encouraged the NIH to continue researching the effects of marijuana use.

“Society has provided you with the situation,” he said.

“It’s definitely happening whether we like it or not,” responded Volkow, on marijuana use.

She said that reports about the potential medicinal benefits of marijuana had convinced people that its use was harmless but that more research was needed.

Volkow’s agency has also faced criticism from marijuana researchers, especially those interested in detailing the drug’s possible benefits, who say they face obstacles to conducting their research.

Critics accuse the National Institute on Drug Abuse of a purported bias against marijuana use. Lawmakers have complained that it is easier for patients to obtain the drug than scientists because of the agency’s restrictions.

The Obama administration, though, handed a victory to medical marijuana advocates last month, when it paved the way for a study on the drug's impact on post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Researchers behind the proposed study had struggled to obtain marijuana from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which currently manages the only federally sanctioned supply of the drug.