The House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would dramatically broaden the country’s access to cannabis for research purposes. A full House floor vote is not yet scheduled, but the committee action is a significant headline in a Republican-controlled legislature.
The Medical Cannabis Research Act would open the door to a more robust federal licensing process that would allow medical-grade cannabis to be grown for state-funded research. Since 1968 and up to the present day, only the University of Mississippi has held such a license.
The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), was introduced earlier this year amid an ongoing national debate over how to counteract the opioid addiction crisis. “It is important to promote further research into the curative potential of medical cannabis, so scientists can unlock its full potential,” Gaetz wrote in May. “Medical cannabis can help America fight the opioid epidemic — and more research can show us how.”
If the bill were to pass, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions would be required to license two research facilities for cannabis cultivation within one year. For each year after that, he (or the successive attorneys general) would be required to license an additional three research facilities.
The bill would also allow health care providers of the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide recommendations to veterans to participate in federally-approved cannabis clinical trials.
Approval in the House Judiciary Committee represents a major milestone for federal cannabis reform.
“The experiences of the states with medical cannabis laws and the millions of patients helped by those programs have proven that cannabis is an effective medicine, but federal research has always lagged behind,” said Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, in a press release. “This markup represents a big step toward increasing our base of knowledge about cannabis, but more importantly, it shows that Congress is willing to look at the issue fairly and scientifically.”
But even among pro-legalization legislators, the bill was not a slam dunk. Several lawmakers, including U.S. Reps. Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), urged the committee to scrutinize and amend the language centering around who may benefit from these additional cannabis research licenses. As it’s written now, the bill bars anyone with a “conviction for a felony or drug-related misdemeanor” from working for or being associated with a licensed cannabis research facility.
Cohen said that the provision maintains the spirit of prohibition, by holding past cannabis convictions against people who may wish to participate in this steadily growing industry. “I would hope that we wouldn’t continue this idea of someone once convicted of marijuana possession—which can cause them to lose student loans still, to lose federal housing—should be [prohibited] from employment,” he said.
(Gaetz countered that “the objective in drafting this bill was to find the broadest area of agreement.”)
U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), committee chairman, said that he would work with Cohen and others to craft amendment language that would address those concerns—before the bill lands on the House floor. He stopped short of pledging to remove the provision altogether, though.
While details remain to be worked out, the bill has some serious traction in a legislative session that otherwise hasn’t embraced cannabis reform bills. Nine states have legalized adult-use cannabis markets, and two more are eyeing ballot issues for the same in November. In all, 31 states have legalized medical marijuana programs. The momentum, as everyone in the industry is well aware, is not slowing.
"Marijuana prohibition has been a disaster," U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) said in the committee meeting. "It's time for Congress to catch up."
Sherry Yafai, director of research and development at High Sobriety (a cannabis-inclusive recovery environment in Los Angeles) and project lead at the UCLA Cannabis Initiative, told Cannabis Business Times that the bill would be a boon for organizations like hers.
“The federal regulations currently limit the research we are able to do to further evaluate the benefit of cannabis in sobriety and rehabilitation from lethal drugs and alcohol addiction,” she said. “These regulations also prevent large universities with more resources and funding for research from working with groups such as High Sobriety. Ultimately, these limitations prevent researchers from accessing federally approved cannabis medication to conduct studies assessing the use of cannabis in medication assisted treatment programs as an option to battle the current opioid epidemic.”
There are many federal bills languishing in committees in Washington, D.C., right now. The Medical Cannabis Research Act, however, has gotten farther in the legislative process than most others.
“What I think [this bill] does do is demystify the debate we’re having about medical cannabis,” Gaetz said. “It is very frustrating to advocates for cannabis reform that when people who oppose our views say, ‘Well, there’s no research.’ … I think we could do a lot better.”
Top photo courtesy of Adobe Stock