Congressional Committee Hearing Navigates the Catch-22 of Cannabis Research
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Congressional Committee Hearing Navigates the Catch-22 of Cannabis Research

The far-reaching committee hearing was convened to discuss six cannabis reform proposals currently undergoing congressional consideration.

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January 17, 2020

On Wednesday, members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health held a hearing on the future of cannabis regulation. Titled “Cannabis Policies for the New Decade,” the meeting included testimony from committee members and three witnesses: Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Nora Volkow, DEA Senior Policy Adviser Matthew Strait and FDA Deputy Director for Regulatory Programs Douglas Throckmorton.

The committee was convened to discuss six cannabis reform proposals currently undergoing congressional consideration:

  • H.R. 171 Legitimate Use of Medicinal Marijuana Act (LUMMA)
  • H.R. 601 Medical Cannabis Research Act of 2019
  • H.R. 1151 Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act
  • H.R. 2843 Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act
  • H.R. 3797 Medical Marijuana Research Act of 2019
  • H.R. 3884 Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019 (The MORE Act).

The ongoing congressional interest in cannabis policy reform after the Senate Caucus panel voted in favor of the MORE Act late last year is promising, to be sure, but arguments continued to highlight the contradictory policies surrounding cannabis research. Pressed by committee members, the witnesses repeatedly acknowledged that the current Schedule-I status of cannabis drastically hinders empirical research while, at the same time, continuing to push the “more research is needed” mantra that has kept policy progress at a stand-still.

"We're in the biggest catch-22 that you could ever see or imagine," U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) said, summarizing much of the day’s conversation.

The need for research on publicly available product was on everyone’s radar. When asked by U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) whether researchers should have access to the cannabis sold at state-licensed dispensaries, Strait responded that the DEA had announced 33 pending applications in August 2019 and that an agency team would be reviewing and discussing the draft regulation already in the pipeline this week.

Meanwhile, Volkow and Throckmorton were hesitant to jump on board the call for de-scheduling in light of the risk-focused research their government health agencies have been so keen to concentrate on, instead highlighting the need for improved but controlled access for researchers.

“Everyone up here has expressed the same concern: We need more research,” U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA) said after insisting that cannabis is a “gateway drug.” He went on to press Strait on action items, next steps, policy implementation. “Tell us what we need to do. Mr. Strait, what do you need? Do you need a ‘Schedule-I-a’ that’s not going to have anything in this except for marijuana? That’s fine with me! I’ll create it. I’ll legislate that. But tell me what it’s going to take.”

Strait responded by pointing out a 150% increase in the number of Schedule-I cannabis researchers in the last five years. He referenced proposals from the NIDA and the DEA to streamline access to cannabis for researchers interested in the plant.

Not known for having the same deeply embedded conservative demeanor as the U.S. Senate, participating House committee members were vocal in demonstrating their collective cognitive dissonance over slow-moving federal agencies.

Amidst the expected, but only occasional, “gateway drug” myth mentions, important questions were raised. When questioned by U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), the witnesses agreed that the single-source NIDA product coming from the University of Mississippi was inadequate, that researchers should be able to access a wider variety of products, and that there were real life consequences due to lack of access to public products.

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) submitted a letter from the University of Maryland, whose Master of Cannabis Therapeutics program is the first of its kind, discussing their desire for better access to legal market products for research without fear of losing federal funding. This brought up the need for better medical education that teaches providers about cannabis. Volkow responded that the scientific community doesn’t yet know enough to develop these programs. No mention was made of including the study of the endocannabinoid system as core curriculum within medical courses.

Notable testimony came from U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA) who observed that federal policy still rests on the impediments and rhetoric created during the Nixon administration:

“Meanwhile, millions of Americans—mostly black and brown—have been locked up for non-violent drug offenses,” he said. “Meanwhile, desperate parents are forced to turn to a black market with no concern for patient safety to get their children the relief that they need. Meanwhile our cities and states are trying, and at times stumbling, to put in place thoughtful and thorough regulatory frameworks with zero support from federal partners. And meanwhile, a brand new corporate industry is rising up, rife with predictable economic injustices that spring up whenever government fails to regulate. Prohibition has clearly failed and America isn’t waiting for its government anymore.”

While the continued congressional dialogue around pushing forward cannabis legislation that opens up research access, patient access and helps repair the deep damage caused by the drug war is novel and important, it remains unlikely that this administration will see these needed changes through. What can be said after hearing legislators repeatedly ask why federal health agencies have not been able to work together to come up with a solution that allows research on products that people are already consuming right now, is that the lack of knowledge, research and regulation is more of a public health concern than the cannabis itself. 

Digital editor Eric Sandy contributed to this report.