Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee filed a report along with the appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. The report mostly consists of broad policy recommendations and guidance for how to spend the appropriated money. On page 108 of the 273 page report, however, is a discussion of “barriers to research,” specifically, how the “Committee is concerned that restrictions associated with Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substance Act effectively limit the amount and type of research that can be conducted on certain Schedule 1 drugs, especially marijuana or its component chemicals and certain synthetic drugs.”
While the report is not law, it signals a welcome change in attitude. For decades, marijuana’s Schedule 1 status has made it very difficult for researchers and scientists to investigate the plant’s medicinal and harmful properties. In order to research marijuana legally for clinical purposes, even if you’re in Colorado and could just purchase some, you must first get a license from the DEA, then get approval from the FDA, and finally get access to the one federally authorized marijuana supply, which is grown at the University of Mississippi and run by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). On top of that, the federally sourced marijuana is often moldy and of unpredictable quality. And then there’s funding, which has often not been forthcoming to those trying to research the possible beneficial uses of cannabis.
Taken together, all of those steps make researching marijuana more difficult than researching almost any other drug on the planet, including other Schedule 1 substances such as heroin and LSD. As the Appropriations Committee report says, “At a time when we need as much information as possible about these drugs, we should be lowering regulatory and other barriers to conducting this research.” The report thus directs NIDA to “provide a short report on the barriers to research that result from the classification of drugs and compounds as Schedule 1 substances.”
The report comes at a time when Attorney General Jeff Sessions is blocking an Obama administration attempt to make marijuana more easily available to researchers. In August 2016, the DEA began accepting applications to become an authorized marijuana supplier. Twenty‐six applications were submitted but, after the administration changed over, Attorney General Sessions stalled the approval process. In response, Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) sent a letter to Sessions asking him to stop blocking research. Hatch has also introduced the MEDS Act, which is a more permanent legislative fix to the problems around marijuana research.
Federal marijuana prohibition, at least as a Schedule 1 drug, is on its last legs. Nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational cannabis and 30 states have legalized medical marijuana. No one is putting that genie back in the bottle. Federal law is so antiquated, in fact, that it makes no distinction between medical and recreational use. Schedule 1 drugs have no accepted medical uses, and the difficulty of carrying out medical research is one reason marijuana still has that status. The Senate Appropriations report is just another step toward the inevitable revision of federal marijuana laws.