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FDA Green Lights Marijuana-Based Pharmaceutical Drug

A drug made from a derivative of marijuana has been approved for patients with certain forms of epilepsy.
Blaine Harrington III
Getty Images
A drug made from a derivative of marijuana has been approved for patients with certain forms of epilepsy.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a marijuana-derived drug for the treatment of two rare and serious forms of epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome, that begin in childhood but can persist in adulthood.

The drug is made from purified cannabidiol, or CBD, a compound found in the cannabis plant. The drug will be marketed under the brand name Epidiolex.

CBD has medicinal effects, but it does not cause the mind-altering high that comes from THC, the primary psychoactive component of marijuana.

The FDA says this is the first drug approved in the U.S. that contains a purified substance derived from marijuana. The agency has previously approved drugs made from synthetic versions of THC and other marijuana constituents.

"This approval serves as a reminder that advancing sound development programs that properly evaluate active ingredients contained in marijuana can lead to important medical therapies," said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb during a call with reporters about the approval.

Several states have legalized CBD oilspecifically for the treatment of intractable epilepsy or seizure disorders. And, as NPR has reported, CBD supplements are available widely online and in dispensaries in the form of oils or tinctures. CBD oil has gained popularity with consumers as a remedy for a variety of other ailments. However, the legal status of these products is uncertain, as is their quality. They're not regulated the way pharmaceutical drugs are, so the consistency and dose can vary widely.

Having an FDA-approved, pharmaceutical-grade CBD drug will open up a new treatment option for epilepsy patients by delivering a high-quality, consistent dose of CBD, says Robert Carson a pediatric neurologist at Vanderbilt University who treats patients with epilepsy.

"Our biggest concerns with the artisanal [or supplement] versions of CBD were related to the consistency," Carson says. "We can't guarantee the consistency."

Carson says he will likely prescribe Epidiolex going forward. "I'm always excited about the potential for a new therapy that has been well-studied and has a great potential for benefit," he says.

Several researchers are studying the potential of CBD to treat psychiatric conditions. For instance, a clinical trial is underway to test whether CBD can be an effective treatment for people with post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol use disorder. Another clinical trial will determine whether CBD could help prevent relapse in opioid abusers.

The approval of Epidiolex may help open the door to more CBD research, as it helps to lift one regulatory hurdle. Until now, the Drug Enforcement Administration has classified CBD as a Schedule 1 substance. Like other drugs in this category, which include heroin and LSD, these drugs are considered to have no medical use and a high potential for abuse.

But now, with the approval of a CBD drug, the DEA will change this, according to Dr. Douglas Throckmorton, deputy director of regulatory programs at the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research,

"The DEA will need to make a different scheduling decision for CBD...because it now has an accepted medical use," he said during a conference call with reporters.

He said the reclassification is underway now.

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Corrected: June 25, 2018 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that cocaine is classified as a Schedule I drug. It is a Schedule II drug.
Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.