House lawmakers are growing increasingly frustrated with restrictions on federal marijuana research and are putting pressure on regulators to change the rules.
While 33 states have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes, federal research is extremely restricted.
During a House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee hearing Wednesday, bipartisan lawmakers pressed officials from the Food and Drug Administration, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and National Institute on Drug Abuse about obstacles to studying the safety and effectiveness of cannabis products, including hemp-based cannabidiol.
“States’ laws and federal policy are a thousand miles apart. As more states allow cannabis, the federal government still strictly controls and prohibits it, even restricting legitimate medical research,” said subcommittee Chairwoman Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.).
All of the administration officials at the hearing agreed the current studies on the benefits and health consequences of marijuana are inadequate. However, they indicated that changes are not going to be immediately forthcoming, as more studies are needed.
Marijuana is a Schedule I drug, meaning it is in the same category as drugs like heroin and LSD. According to the federal government, it has a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical value.
Drug schedules were first established by former President Nixon as part of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. Marijuana was put into Schedule I at that time, and has remained there ever since.
Democrats expressed frustration at the hurdles potential researchers have to overcome.
“Federal prohibition has failed, from our criminal justice system to our health care system to our state and local governments that are forced to navigate an impossible landscape,” said Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.).
Researchers need approval from three separate agencies, which can sometimes take upwards of a year. Once approved, they’re only allowed to research cannabis grown by a government-authorized farm at the University of Mississippi.
That facility has been the sole grower of federally approved marijuana since 1968.
Researchers and lawmakers from both parties have said the single source is too limiting, but experts said officials across multiple administrations have not provided an adequate reason why marijuana research is so restricted.
“Researchers are in a catch-22. They can’t conduct cannabis research until they show cannabis has a medical use, but they can’t show cannabis has a medical use until they can conduct research,” Eshoo said.
DEA senior policy adviser Matthew Strait said the agency is aware of the limitations, and has drafted new regulations that would allow additional marijuana growers.
The DEA in August announced it would begin taking steps to expand the number of federally approved marijuana growers, but it first needed to develop new regulations to evaluate the applications.
Strait said the agency has drafted those rules and submitted them to the White House for regulatory review. Agency staff will be on a call tomorrow to discuss them, he said.
Strait was also pressed about removing marijuana from the list of controlled substances.
The DEA has the authority to change the scheduling of marijuana, or completely remove it from the list of controlled substances without input from Congress, but it has yet to do so.
Advocates are pushing the House to pass the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which would deschedule marijuana.
But some Republicans expressed concern about completely removing marijuana from the controlled substances list. Instead, they indicated an openness to changing its schedule to make it easier to research.
“Descheduling cannabis is a step too far and one I would not support,” said Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), the top Republican of the full committee. Any discussion of descheduling must be preceded by a fuller understanding of the potential risks associated with cannabis use — which we currently do not have.”
Walden added that rescheduling cannabis may help improve the research landscape.
“We need more research and better data. Americans are consuming more cannabis and policy decisions on this substance have been made in a virtual information vacuum,” Walden said.