A national cannabis trade group is publicly calling for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to keep its hands off of medical marijuana research. Doctors and public health officials—not law enforcement—should be in charge of regulating clinical cannabis research, they say.
“One of the many qualified public health agencies in the federal government (i.e. Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, etc.) should manage all of the processes related to research into the medicinal benefits of cannabis, including making decisions about who might qualify to grow and sell the product to researchers,” said the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) in a May 8 statement to the DEA. The lobbying group represents cannabis businesses nationally.
“This is perfectly consistent with US [global drug control] treaty obligations,” NCIA continued. “Furthermore, the US should adopt a regulatory framework that encourages and facilitates further research, rather than chilling it.”
NCIA’s demand comes after the DEA released a long-awaited proposed rule-change to its medical marijuana research regulations in late March. The agency proposed to license more institutions to grow marijuana for research purposes, and to let them produce different types of marijuana products and derivatives, like CBD. But under this proposal, the DEA would assume full ownership over all marijuana produced for research. A public comment period on this rule-change continues until May 22.
If accepted, the proposal would be a major departure from the status quo. As Filter has reported, currently the only institution that can legally produce marijuana for research in the US is the University of Mississippi, and they don’t have to forfeit ownership of the product to the DEA. The DEA first allowed other institutions to apply for a license to grow research cannabis in August 2016. More than three years later, the DEA has failed to consider 37 outstanding applications. This inaction prompted pressure from members of Congress and a lawsuit.
The NCIA is arguing that any rule-change the DEA adopts will ultimately slow down medical cannabis research and prevent positive outcomes for patients nationwide. The group cited the overwhelming public support for medical marijuana among Americans—at least 90 percent among both Democrats and Republicans. NCIA also noted that there are at least 3 million US medical marijuana patients across 47 states with some form of legal access.
That number is certainly an underestimate, however. A 2017 Yahoo News and Marist College survey found that 55 million American adults are “current” marijuana users, with 35 million “regular” users. A proportion of this huge population is undoubtedly using marijuana for medical purposes, whether or not they are doing so legally or with a doctor’s recommendation.
The NCIA argues that the DEA has an inherent conflict of interests in overseeing medical marijuana research, because the agency’s mandate is to enforce the federal prohibition of marijuana. The DEA seized 4 million cannabis plants in 2019—a 42 percent increase from the year prior.
“Unreasonable barriers placed on research, including limiting the number of qualified applicants or further delays in the process, increases the risks to millions of patients who use cannabis, contributing to ongoing uncertainties related to inaccurate dosing, inappropriate formulation application, interactions with pharmaceutical drugs and botanicals, and basic safety monitoring,” the NCIA stated.
Unwelcome regulatory complexities have been built on the fact that smoking is only one way of many to consume cannabis, which can also be eaten, vaporized, applied topically or consumed in an alcoholic tincture, to name a few. “Cannabis” is also not just one drug—there are hundreds of active components in the same plant, including cannabinoids like THC and CBD, as well as aromatic compounds called terpenes, like linalool and myrcene. “Cannabis” includes two species and a large variety of different strains, each with their own therapeutic and medicinal effects.
Filter has reported on some of the controversies that animate medical marijuana science: Can medical marijuana treat opioid use disorder, and can it help people who also use buprenorphine or methadone in recovery? Does it help young kids with epilepsy? And what does addiction to cannabis look like, and how could we treat it?
Rigorous, unhindered and widespread research into medical marijuana can answer a lot of questions about what it can or can’t do, and who can benefit. Few outside of the government would argue that the DEA is an appropriate agency to oversee this.
“There is no putting the genie back in the bottle,” stated the NCIA. “It is clear the American public wants regulated, tested and safe cannabis.”