A key committee is holding a hearing on six pieces of marijuana reform legislation—including two bills to federally legalize cannabis—on Wednesday.
The Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health will discuss the measures, which also include several proposals aimed at promoting research into cannabis. But while advocates view the development as a positive step, there are some concerns about the fact that only officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) were invited to testify.
In any case, movement on legalization bills such as Judiciary Chairman Jerrod Nadler’s (D-NY) Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act is regarded as a welcome follow up to his panel’s vote in favor of the legislation last year. Legalization advocates might not be at the witness table at this meeting, but there’s optimism about reform’s prospects to advance regardless.
“While state laws and public perception around cannabis and its derivatives have evolved over the years, much of the federal framework that regulates cannabis has stayed the same,” Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) said in his opening statement as prepared for delivery.
Watch the hearing, titled “Cannabis Policy For the New Decade,” live below:
A coalition of cannabis reform groups—including the National Cannabis Industry Association, Cannabis Trade Federation and Minority Cannabis Business Association—sent a letter to subcommittee leadership ahead of the meeting, encouraging members to take action on the various pieces of legislation.
BREAKING: Cannabis industry groups send letter urging descheduling and federal regulation to increase research improve public safety and address harms caused by prohibition.
— National Cannabis Industry Association (@NCIAorg) January 14, 2020
“As organizations that collectively represent thousands of state-legal cannabis businesses around the country, ancillary industries, and our communities, we applaud your decision to hold a hearing on cannabis policy so early in the new legislative session,” the groups wrote. “This is a wonderful opportunity to continue the robust and groundbreaking discussion on this issue that took place in Congress last year and we commend your leadership in carrying it over into 2020.”
“As an industry, we understand that many lawmakers have concerns about the impact of the changing legal status of cannabis. We do not take these concerns lightly. These concerns underscore the need to establish a legal federal cannabis framework, as current federal policies can cause and exacerbate these concerns. We welcome the opportunity to work with lawmakers and regulators to determine the best paths forward as state and federal cannabis policy evolves.”
Don’t expect that same level of enthusiasm for comprehensive reform from the invited witnesses, however.
In written testimony, DEA, FDA and NIDA representatives generally described the current state of federal marijuana policy, unsurprisingly without advocating for changes to cannabis’s current criminal status. That said, both DEA and NIDA seemed to at least recognize that existing policies are inhibiting research into the plant and signaled that changes are on the horizon.
NIDA Director Nora Volkow wrote that the growing availability of cannabis products, particularly with high concentrations of THC, “raise serious public health concerns.” At the same time, however, “despite the public health urgency, legal and regulatory barriers continue to present challenges to advancing cannabis research.”
“Obtaining or modifying a Schedule I registration [for researchers to study marijuana] involves significant administrative challenges, and researchers report that obtaining a new registration can take more than a year,” she said. “Adding new substances to an existing registration can also be time consuming.”
“It would be useful to clarify aspects of the [Controlled Substances Act] that have been sources of confusion and administrative burden for the research community,” she said.
Additionally, Volkow acknowledged that the current situation, where the government has only authorized one facility to cultivate cannabis for researchers, “limits the diversity of products and formulations available to researchers and slows the development of cannabis-based medications.”
“Although the University of Mississippi supplies cannabis for clinical trials, it does not have the capacity to manufacture a broad array of cannabis-derived formulations for research or to supply these cannabis products for commercial development,” she said.
DEA Senior Policy Advisor Matthew Strait wrote that his agency remains committed to expanding the number of federally authorized cannabis manufacturers for research purposes, noting that DEA is reviewing the situation but that “adjustments to DEA’s policies and procedures may be necessary under applicable U.S. law to be consistent with certain treaty functions.”
“In the near future, DEA intends to propose regulations that would govern persons seeking to become registered with DEA to grow marihuana as bulk manufacturers, consistent with applicable law, taking into account recent changes in the Controlled Substances Act,” he said. “At present, a notice of proposed rulemaking is under review by the Office of Management and Budget.”
Volkow raised another issue, which other federal agencies have previously recognized, noting that “researchers supported by NIDA and other federal agencies are unable to access marketed cannabis products through state marijuana dispensaries.”
“There is a significant gap in our understanding of their impact on health,” she said. “The recent outbreaks of e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury (EVALI), which has been linked to informally-sourced THC-containing vape products, underscores the critical importance of facilitating researcher access to different product sources.”
A NIDA staffer told Marijuana Moment in an email last week that “rigorous research is essential for understanding how the changing cannabis landscape will affect public health, for guiding evidence-based policy, and advancing therapeutics.”
“However, there are significant regulatory challenges to conducting research with marijuana and other Schedule I drugs,” the official said. “NIDA [has] been working with the DEA and FDA on ways to ameliorate these challenges, but there is nothing publicly available to share at this time.”
Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.
Written by Kyle Jaeger