The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has now failed to approve any new medical marijuana research supplier licenses for the third year and counting. This is after it agreed in August 2016 to “take steps … to increase the lawful supply of marijuana available to researchers” by allowing producers to apply for supplier licenses.
As a result, the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”) remains the nation’s sole provider of research-grade cannabis, having held its license since 1968. Congressmembers and a leading medical marijuana researcher are now speaking out and taking legal action to force the DEA to approve new licenses.
According to Stat News, two dozen marijuana producers applied for a supplier license in the year following the the DEA’s 2016 announcement; none have been approved since. There are currently 26 outstanding applications.
In May, a bipartisan group of 24 members of the US House of Representatives wrote a letter to the DEA and the US Justice Department urging action on this issue.
The letter noted that marijuana researchers nationwide are unhappy with the “poor quality” of cannabis they receive from Ole Miss, and with a timely and complex process for obtaining it. Ole Miss also does not offer isolated cannabinoid compounds.
“It is thus not surprising that those who want to research cannabis are frustrated,” the Representatives wrote. “Some wait months or even years to have their applications approved. And then they have to deal with raw materials that do not always lend themselves to proper research.” The Representatives urged the agencies to speed up the marijuana supplier approval process to avoid obstructing further research.
On June 11, the Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) in Phoenix, Arizona filed suit against the DEA in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. SRI, led by Sue Sisley, MD, successfully completed the world’s only FDA-approved randomized controlled trial that studied marijuana for combat veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dr. Sisley has argued that cannabis provided by Ole Miss is so poor that it may compromise the results of her research. The institution’s marijuana is much less potent than strains more widely available, she has said. It amounts to a “mishmash of different strains (including stem sticks, leaves, etc.)…[which seems to be] thrown into a grinder in an overzealous effort to standardize the study drug batches for clinical trials.”
Drug policy reform advocates are not surprised that the DEA has failed to deliver on its promise from three years ago.
“It shows how much they are stuck in the past on these issues,” said Michael Collins, Director of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “Especially when there are now 11 states with legal adult-use marijuana, and about 33 total including medical marijuana. To have them still preventing us from doing research is completely ridiculous.”
Collins told Filter that institutions wishing to legally research marijuana are subject to stringent security requirements, including maintaining lockboxes and safes, CCTV monitoring and completing onerous paperwork.
He believes that the DEA is institutionally obstinate regardless of who occupies the White House. “I don’t necessarily think it’s coming from the Trump administration higher-ups,” he said. “The DEA under President Obama was still very dug-in against marijuana reform and wouldn’t give an inch on the issue. They’re quite happy to deny people the ability to do research on it; it’s an institutional issue there.”
On July 17, another bipartisan group of Congressmembers introduced legislation to reform processes and regulations around medical marijuana research. This would allow private manufacturing and distribution of marijuana for research purposes.
The DEA has stated that it is still working through supplier licenses, and all are under review. The agency has not commented on Dr. Sisley’s lawsuit since litigation is pending.
Photo of Seattle City Councilmembers touring a marijuana grow site in 2013, via Wikimedia Commons.