Federal Agency Moves to Acknowledge Medicinal Cannabis for Mental Health and Substance

effects of cannabis on mental health

There is a change to how the effects of cannabis on mental health are being defined. This past summer, the State Department issued a statement warning mental health and substance abuse grant applicants and recipients that they are still at risk of losing funding after the federal oversight and funding agency, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) removed specific language from their terms and conditions related to treatments involving marijuana. Previously, programs that cater to patients already using or seeking to use medical marijuana as part of their treatment plans would’ve been denied funds, however, recent revisions to SAMHSA’s terms and conditions removed the explicit language stating that funding to any organization that “provides or permits marijuana use for the purposes of treating substance use or mental disorders” would be denied. Learn more about mental health and cannabis use.

New Changes to Mental Health and Cannabis Use

The issue was brought to light when the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs flagged the new language change. Despite this change, the vague language creates a definite gray area. States impacted by the previous restrictions were quick to question the agency and demanded clarity on the changed language surrounding the new terms and conditions. In response, a spokesperson for SAMHSA clarified their position for a piece by Marijuana Moment, stating, “This Aug. 1 clarification simply made clearer what was already in place: SAMHSA funds should not be used to procure a federally prohibited substance”.

The same spokesman avoided commenting on whether or not funding can be granted to programs that allow patients to use medical marijuana as part of their desired treatment plans, “You can see from our recent press releases that SAMHSA’s priorities are to expand opportunities for people to get into treatment, as well as to grow the behavioral health workforce,” the spokesman added.

Does this change in language foreshadow bigger changes to come in terms of federal marijuana policy? These restrictive policies specifically impact programs seeking to secure funding for opioid treatment and alcohol and substance misuse programs. An extremely unfortunate and cruel obstacle for these programs to face as the CDC reports that in 2019, 70,630 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States. 

SAMHSA on The Effects of Cannabis on Mental Health

SAMHSA’s stance has certainly loosened since 2019 when they stated that “the organization cannot serve a patient who is on medical marijuana for a mental or substance use disorder and wishes to remain on such treatment”.  At the time, SAMHSA took its stance even further, claiming that there was no empirical evidence to support that marijuana is an effective treatment for mental illness or substance use disorders.

In a 2020 study performed by Sarris, et al., researchers concluded that “There is currently encouraging, albeit embryonic, evidence for medicinal cannabis in the treatment of a range of psychiatric disorders.” This particular study aimed to measure the impact of cannabinoids on major psychiatric disorders including PTSD, anxiety, sleep, ADHD and psychotic disorders. Another 2020 study performed by Botsford, Yang and George argues for more high-quality, longitudinal studies, noting, “We suggest that future research be directed toward high-quality, prospective studies of cannabis in clinical populations with mood and ADs, in addition to controlled studies of cannabinoid constituents and pharmaceuticals in these populations.” These conclusions appear to be a common theme among various clinical studies surrounding cannabis. Quite simply – more research is needed. 

Despite SAMHSA’s shift in terms and conditions, the federally illegal status of cannabis remains a significant roadblock for scientists looking to orchestrate empirical research programs. Organizations that commit to the research use cannabis grown at the University of Mississippi, which for nearly 50 years was the only DEA-approved grow. However, the cannabis grown at “Ole Miss” has been criticized for being lower quality with much lower THC than most cannabis procured from dispensaries nationwide. Federal prohibition and access to poor quality cannabis are significantly problematic elements for clinical studies. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) agrees that more research is imperative to the further development of cannabis-related therapies and states directly on their site:

“Unfortunately, federal law and policy create barriers to researching the risks and benefits of the use of marijuana and other cannabis products. Since 1970, marijuana has been classified as a Schedule I Drug on the Schedule of Controlled Substances, which applies to drugs with a “high potential for abuse” and with “no currently accepted medical use.” U.S. researchers face regulatory hurdles to studying any Schedule I drugs when they attempt to research marijuana. This situation has limited the development of robust scientific research.”

Restrictions on Cannabis

It is clear that the current restrictions placed on cannabis by the federal government are making it extremely difficult to satiate the need for empirical research in the field. This empirical research is imperative when it comes to impacting policy and future therapies for mental illness and substance use disorders. The disconnect between the federal government’s stance on cannabis, the scientific community and the general populace, is being highlighted now more than ever, as over 30 states have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational purposes and support for legalized marijuana is at an all-time high of 68%.

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