After years of ignoring the growing evidence of cannabis’ safety and medical benefits, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) may finally be catching up with the times. In a soon-to-be-published Federal Register filing, the agency announced that starting next year, it will increase the amount of cannabis produced for medical research, while simultaneously curtailing the total number of opioids manufactured in the U.S.
But don’t take this as a sign that the agency is changing its mind about cannabis, as it continues to classify all forms of the plant — even hemp-derived CBD — as Schedule I drugs with no accepted medical value. While the DEA has allowed a small quantity of marijuana to be legally grown for research purposes since 1968, it unfortunately licensed only one cultivator, the University of Mississippi, for this task, and the pot produced by this institution is reportedly some of the lowest-grade ganja the modern world has ever seen.
Researchers wishing to conduct federally-sanctioned cannabis research are stuck with using government-grown weed, but the quality of this product is so bad that scientists have sounded the alarm about it possibly harming the validity of their medical studies, finding that schwag supplied by the feds bears little resemblance to high-quality kush now found in state-legal dispensaries and on the black market. Not only is government grass alleged to be full of stems and seeds, but tested samples were contaminated with mold and other pathogens.
The DEA is well aware of this issue, and actually began accepting applications for new cannabis cultivators several years ago, but the final approval process for licensing growers has since been blocked by President Trump’s Justice Department. This spring, Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) wrote to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, urging him to stop interfering with the approval process. Despite his personal animus against cannabis, Sessions admitted that increasing the number of government-approved cultivators was a good idea, and promised to take action on the issue in the near future.
That day has come at last. The DEA has authorized the cultivation of 5,400 pounds of weed (around 2,450,000 grams) in 2019, a significant boost from the roughly 1,000 pounds authorized this year. The agency has not explicitly said that they would approve growers other than the University of Mississippi, but that move seems likely, considering the agency's plans to quintuple the amount of pot produced.
The DEA also announced that they intend to limit the production of several opioid drugs — including oxycodone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl — which are currently driving a deadly crisis of addiction and overdoses in the U.S. “We’ve lost too many lives to the opioid epidemic and families and communities suffer tragic consequences every day,” said DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon in a statement. “This significant drop in prescriptions by doctors and DEA’s production quota adjustment will continue to reduce the amount of drugs available for illicit diversion and abuse while ensuring that patients will continue to have access to proper medicine.”
Although the DEA's announcement regarding cannabis research is great news, there are still several roadblocks hindering scientists who wish to better understand marijuana. "While the drastic increase in requested production of marijuana by the DEA is a positive sign, significant barriers still exist including but not limited to the NIDA monopoly on cultivation [at University of Mississippi] and undue hurdles for researchers to qualify for a permit," NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Forbes. "It's time that Congress look at the 28,000 plus peer-reviewed studies currently hosted on the National Institute of Health's online database and reform federal law by removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act all together."
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