The US Senate just approved a groundbreaking bill to expand marijuana research, marking the first time in recent history that Congress's upper chamber passed a cannabis reform bill.
On Tuesday, the Senate passed the Cannabidiol and Marihuana Research Expansion Act by unanimous consent following a brief amendment. This bill, which was originally proposed last year, contains a number of provisions to encourage clinical cannabis research. Most notably, the bill would force the DEA to expand the total number of institutions authorized to grow pot for research purposes.
For over five decades, the feds have granted the University of Mississippi the exclusive right to grow cannabis for medical research. This institution only provides pre-rolls stuffed with moldy, low-THC shake, though, leading many researchers to declare it unsuitable for serious research. In 2016, the DEA eventually announced that it would license additional growers, but despite several lawsuits and hundreds of angry letters from politicians, the agency has yet to take further action.
And even though scientists, politicians, and industry leaders all agree that the University of Mississippi's grass is not up to snuff, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) just announced that the university's cultivation monopoly will be extended for at least another year.
The Senate's new bill would finally put an end to this monopoly by authorizing the US Attorney General to personally approve applications from prospective research weed cultivators. The bill would also force the DEA to approve these applications in a timely manner.
“Existing regulations make medical marijuana research difficult and have prevented us from understanding exactly how medical marijuana can be used safely and effectively to treat various conditions,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in a statement. “Our bill streamlines the research process and paves the way for marijuana-derived medications that are FDA-approved to treat serious medical conditions, like intractable epilepsy, in a way that will keep consumers safe.”
The Cannabidiol and Marihuana Research Expansion Act also encourages the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve cannabis-based medications. The bill specifically suggests that the FDA should allow “accredited medical and osteopathic schools, practitioners, research institutions, and manufacturers with a Schedule I registration” to grow their own weed for research.
The proposal would require the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to create an official report investigating the health benefits and risks of cannabis. The HHS would also be required to submit a second report identifying federal policies standing in the way of weed research and providing recommendations on revising these restrictions. The final version of the bill also includes an amendment that would make it legal for a state-licensed physician to discuss medical cannabis with patients.
Just last week, the US House of Representatives passed a similar piece of legislation, the Medical Marijuana Research Act (MMRA). Like its Senate counterpart, this bill would force the DEA to approve additional research weed growers, but it also includes a provision that would allow researchers to legally study high-quality cannabis products purchased from state-authorized dispensaries.
The differences between these two research bills make it difficult to predict what will happen next. The House could choose to sign the Cannabidiol and Marihuana Research Expansion Act into law, or the Senate could choose to approve the MMRA. In either of these cases, the bill could be placed on the president's desk before the end of the year. Or, the two chambers could work on a compromise bill that incorporates the best ideas from each, which would likely delay passage until next year.
But even if neither bill becomes law in 2020, it is clear that there is strong bipartisan backing for cannabis research reform.
“I’ve been a strong supporter and lead Republican of this legislation since it was first introduced in 2016,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), co-sponsor of the Senate bill. “This bipartisan bill is critical to better understanding the marijuana plant and its potential benefits and side effects…. Researching marijuana is widely supported by my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and it’s a smart step forward in addressing this current Schedule I drug.”