For decades the ability to study the medicinal effects of marijuana have been obstructed by the federal government. But in a sign that the marijuana landscape is changing, a bipartisan group of 30 members of Congress wrote a letter to Sylvia Matthews Burwell, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, asking her to remove barriers to obtaining the drug for research purposes. (The full letter appears at the bottom of this article.)
According to a press release by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon):
“Currently, scientists not funded by the NIH seeking to conduct research on marijuana are subject not only to the review process that applies to other Schedule I substances, but to an additional review process by the Department of Health and Human Services that allows for access to the only source of marijuana grown in the United States that can be legally used for research.”
The Public Health Service (PHS) review protocol applies only to marijuana.
Currently, marijuana is a Schedule I drug, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. This is ludicrous and shows how out of touch both the DEA and the federal government are.
Sunil Aggarwal, a physician in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University Medical Center, has conducted extensive research on marijuana and has confronted numerous government barriers.
“The PHS review is completely obstructionist and unnecessary, and it should be done away with, but the policy change we really need is descheduling,” Aggarwal said. “Marijuana is essentially treated like it is in schedule 0 — higher than schedule I. Congress made an inhumane and willfully ignorant move 44 years ago when they placed marijuana in Schedule I. Cannabis, a 38-million-year-old highly useful plant, belongs to the citizens of the world, not for monopolization by government drug abuse institutes.”
Researchers who are granted approval to study marijuana have only one legal source of obtaining it, a farm at the University of Mississippi that is contracted by the federal government and controlled by the DEA. Before the supply of marijuana is released to researchers, the DEA has to give its approval, which can take months or even years.
Scientists have complained that government supplies are limited and the quality of the marijuana is poor.
In May, the DEA finally increased the amount of marijuana that can be grown at the farm from 21 kilograms to 650 kilograms.
The ability to conduct research on marijuana is essential because opponents of medical marijuana and of marijuana legalization claim they can’t support the use of the drug because there aren’t enough studies showing its safety and efficacy. The reason there are few U.S. studies is a result of onerous restrictions and rules that make it almost impossible to carry out the research, especially if it is designed to measure positive, medicinal effects.
In recent weeks Congress has become increasingly skeptical of the regulatory and enforcement powers of the DEA. At the end of May, the U.S. House of Representatives historically voted in favor of a pro-medical marijuana amendment. The amendment, tacked onto the much larger criminal justice funding bill (H.R. 4660), would prohibit the Department of Justice from using federal taxpayer funds to interfere with medical marijuana laws in 22 states that have passed them. Currently, the DEA—part of the U.S. Department of Justice—continues to raid medical marijuana dispensaries and arrest patients despite the fact that several states have legalized medical marijuana.
The amendment still awaits approval by the Senate, and Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced it together this week. If the Paul-Booker medical marijuana amendment passes in the Senate, it will be included in the House-Senate conference committee negotiations. The last stop is President Obama’s desk. If both houses of Congress approve the amendment, it’s likely he’ll sign it.
The amendment also prohibits the DEA from interfering with the production of hemp in states where it’s legal, like in Kentucky, which legalized industrial hemp last year. The fact that it was state-legal didn’t stop DEA agents from seizing 250 pounds of hemp seed at the Louisville airport. The seeds were imported from Italy to plant at state universities in their hemp pilot program. The confiscated seeds were eventually handed over to agriculture officials but only after the state of Kentucky filed a lawsuit against the federal government.
An increased congressional interest in cannabis is apparent, but only time will tell whether this will be the Congress that finally moves the U.S. toward new, more rational drug policies.
Helen Redmond is a freelance journalist and a drug and health policy analyst.