Researchers looking to study the medical benefits and risks of cannabis use have long been limited by federal prohibition, but legislation that cleared the U.S. House of Representatives April 4 aims to remove some of these barriers.
The bipartisan legislation, which is co-sponsored by 11 other representatives, would allow researchers to access cannabis from state-legal dispensaries for their studies, the news outlet reported.
The bill ultimately aims to make it easier for researchers to apply for approval to study cannabis by ensuring an adequate supply and establishing deadlines for federal agencies to consider applications, according to Forbes.
Scientists interested in studying cannabis have long argued that it often takes years before their research is approved by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and that the quality of cannabis provided by the University of Mississippi is inferior to the cannabis products available in state markets.
The University of Mississippi had been the only entity federally approved to cultivate cannabis for research purposes until last year, when a handful of additional companies received approval through memorandums of agreement (MOA) from the DEA.
In 2016, the DEA announced that it was shifting its policies to allow additional entities to grow cannabis for clinical research purposes, but then took no action to approve or deny any of the roughly two dozen applications it received from companies interested in cultivating cannabis for research.
After three years of inaction, a federal court ordered the DEA in 2019 to explain why it had not responded to the applications. The order was in response to a lawsuit that Dr. Sue Sisley and the Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) filed against the Justice Department and DEA earlier that year after their application was ignored.
While the court order ultimately prompted the DEA to approve the handful of new companies to cultivate cannabis for research purposes, cannabis research remains limited due to ongoing federal prohibition.
No clinical studies have been conducted on products sold through state-legal dispensaries, for example, and most studies on the therapeutic effects of cannabis have been performed on synthetic formulations of specific cannabinoids, such as THC and CBD, according to Forbes.
Industry stakeholders are now applauding the House’s passage of the Medical Marijuana Research Act, which could finally offer expanded research opportunities.
“These common-sense regulatory changes are necessary and long overdue,” Paul Armentano, deputy director for NORML, said in a public statement. “Currently, the limited variety of cannabis cultivars accessible to federally licensed researchers does not represent the type or quality of cannabis products currently available in legal, statewide markets. The reality that nearly one half of U.S. adults have legal access to these multitude of cannabis products, but our nation’s top scientists do not, is the height of absurdity and it is an indictment of the current system.”
“Cannabis has a wide range of therapeutic applications, but researchers have consistently faced significant roadblocks to conducting studies,” added Steven Hawkins, CEO of the U.S. Cannabis Council, in a public statement. “Research is key to evaluating and unlocking the full potential of cannabis, and we applaud the House for passing legislation that would greatly expand the eligible supply of cannabis for studies.”
The House passed a previous version of the Medical Marijuana Research Act in 2020 but the legislation was never taken up in the Senate, where this year’s version of the bill is now headed.
Last month, the Senate approved its own version of a cannabis research bill, S. 253, titled the Cannabidiol and Marihuana Research Expansion Act.
That legislation aims to expand scientific and medical research on cannabis and its compounds by reducing some of the regulatory barriers, while also requiring the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) to submit a report to Congress on the potential harms and benefits of cannabis use.
“Today’s House vote and last month’s unanimous Senate vote on a more limited proposal both strongly signal that Congress is committed to cannabis research,” Hawkins said. “We urge House and Senate leaders to consolidate their bills and pass meaningful cannabis research reform this year."