Jeff Sessions Stonewalls Permission for Medical Marijuana Research

Even as public opinion shifts in favor of marijuana legalization, with sixty percent of Americans supporting broad legalization and ninety percent supporting medical use, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice (DOJ) continue to stonewall efforts to expand availability of cannabis and cannabis-derived treatments for medical research.

In testimony to a Senate Appropriations subcommittee in April, Sessions argued that although recent studies have shown that access to medical marijuana reduces opioid overdose deaths, the evidence to support expanding access is still insufficient.

This is simply untrue. While DOJ and DEA policy have limited the ability of U.S. researchers to access and experiment with medical grade marijuana, substantial peer-reviewed scientific research supports the benefits of medical marijuana.

Medical marijuana has been shown to improve the quality of life and health outcomes of patients with cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, PTSD, and many other ailments. Israel and many European Union countries lead the way in medical and pharmaceutical research. The market for medical marijuana is projected to be worth 55 billion dollars by 2025, and biopharmaceutical firms are entering multi-million dollar partnerships with universities to advance the research and development of new cannabis-based medications.

Yet despite the economic and humanitarian gains from expanding research into of medical marijuana, the DOJ refuses to expand marijuana production for scientific use. In August 2016 the DEA issued a policy statement providing a legal registration process for marijuana suppliers. None of the 25 applications submitted thus far has been accepted or rejected. Instead of allowing the regulated production of marijuana for research purposes, as allowed under the law, the DEA is keeping applicants in bureaucratic limbo.

When questioned about the administrative inaction, Sessions argued that language in the policy violated the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.  Yet the treaty contains broad exemptions regarding medical research and use, and, given the proliferation of marijuana research abroad, legal pathways exist that do not violate the treaty.

Even as the DEA refuses to take action, other federal agencies are quietly accepting medical marijuana. The FDA recently approved a drug containing CBD (cannabidiol) derived from marijuana. In a statement, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said, “We’ll continue to support rigorous scientific research on the potential medical uses of marijuana-derived products and work with product developers who are interested in bringing patients safe and effective, high quality products.”

Restricting scientific research and development within the United States will only hurt American scientists, companies, and patients. While Jeff Sessions may continue to argue fiercely against medical marijuana, the tide is turning.

Research assistant Erin Partin contributed to this blogpost.