Lawmakers Press DEA to Allow More Marijuana Research

Lawmakers Press DEA to Allow More Marijuana Research
A key U.S. House committee passed a bill Wednesday that instructs the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to come up with a plan to accelerate the approval process for marijuana research.

For years, scientists and marijuana law reformers have complained that federal rules make it too difficult for researchers to effectively study the medical benefits of cannabis. They say DEA has acted as a roadblock to science at almost every opportunity.

But now, the powerful House Appropriations Committee has approved legislation directing the agency to “review all relevant DEA rules governing research on the medical efficacy of marijuana and determine ways to facilitate further research through streamlining the DEA approval process.”

In a move guaranteed to surprise many observers of marijuana policy, the provision was primarily pushed by Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), perhaps best known for his unsuccessful efforts to stop Washington, D.C. from implementing local laws to decriminalize and legalize the drug.

“Say what you will about Andy Harris, but the man is sincere,” Dan Riffle, director of federal policy for the Marijuana Policy Project, told in an email. “I hope his sincerity compels him to support reform when this research proves what many of us already know: that for patients marijuana is an effective medical option with fewer and less severe side effects than many pharmaceutical alternatives, and that in a recreational context it is a less harmful alternative to alcohol.”

The Harris language is attached to the bill that funds the Department of Justice, of which DEA is a part. It also directs the agency to “work in collaboration” with federal health agencies “to facilitate such research efforts.” The committee wants the agency to formulate a plan for doing so and report back within 120 days of the bill’s enactment.

Marijuana reform advocates cheered the move, but said that it might not be enough to remove all of the current barriers to research on the drug.

“The language is certainly welcome in its apparent attempt to facilitate research, but in practical terms, I’m not sure that it would accomplish that end,” said Mike Liszewski, director of government affairs at Americans for Safe Access.

One such barrier that would remain in place, he said, is the Public Health Service review that privately funded marijuana studies must go through in addition to getting approval from the Food and Drug Administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration and institutional review boards — an extra step that doesn’t exist for research concerning any other drug. That review is mandated by the Department of Health and Human Services, not DEA.

Liszewski also cited the the fact that the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is the sole legal supplier of marijuana for research in the U.S. “Budget language to the DEA can’t fix the problems associated with the NIDA monopoly of the federally available research supply of marijuana,” he said.

But Riffle, of the Marijuana Policy Project, said the monopoly “is a product of the DEA’s interpretation of international treaties and the [Controlled Substances Act].”

He said NIDA Director Nora Volkow told him at a briefing last week that her agency didn’t ask for the monopoly and feels the current policy poses obstacles to research. She previously told that NIDA is “working closely with our federal partners to try to find ways to reduce the barriers to research on marijuana and its constituent compounds.”

Riffle said that “getting DEA to license additional producers outside of NIDA, which would be hugely significant, might be possible” under the new legislative language. He also said that breaking the NIDA monopoly would give researchers a way to avoid the rigorous Public Health Service review.

While the bill could potentially spur DEA to consider changing its interpretation of federal law and international treaties, Liszewski, of Americans for Safe Access, said that it “only requires DEA to examine and come up with a plan to streamline and facilitate research, but it doesn’t require the agency to implement these steps.”

Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said that reformers would keep pursuing any and all opportunities to stop the DEA from interfering with cannabis science. “Until they get out of the way we will keep going after their budget and powers,” he said.

The legislation, the Fiscal Year 2016 Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, now heads to the House floor. The Senate hasn’t yet taken up its version of the bill.

Separately, two of the Senate’s leading opponents of marijuana reform, Charles Grassley and Dianne Feinstein, are pushing the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services to better facilitate marijuana research.


TOM ANGELL Website Facebook Twitter
Tom Angell founded Marijuana Majority to help more people understand that marijuana legalization is a mainstream, majority-supported issue and that no one who wants to end prohibition should be afraid to say so. Marijuana Majority led the effort to get the U.S. Conference of Mayors to pass a resolution telling the federal government to respect state marijuana laws, and orchestrated the first-ever endorsement for marijuana legalization from a U.S. Supreme Court justice (John Paul Stevens). Previously, Tom worked for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

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