Expanded Medical Marijuana Research Bill Approved by Congress

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Recently, U.S. Representative Matt Gaetz introduced the Medical Cannabis Research Act (the “Act”), which would facilitate and encourage federally-approved clinical trials testing the medicinal effects of chemicals found in the marijuana plant. The bill is notable because, if passed, it would bypass the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) as it relates to marijuana research licenses and would put the task in the hands of Congress.

Currently, the House Judiciary Committee, which is responsible for the drug enforcement efforts of the federal government, approved the measure. If this bill passes, it would provide an opening for more medical marijuana research, which has been virtually non-existent at the federal level over the last five decades.

Notably, the Act increases the number of federally-approved manufacturers of research-grade marijuana from one to three and sets strict criteria for those manufacturers to obtain and renew their registrations. Currently, only the University of Mississippi is permitted to grow research-grade marijuana.

Two years ago, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced that it would allow more cannabis growers to cultivate marijuana for research purposes by opening up the licensing process, however, no additional licenses have been issued despite many completed applications by competent and eager applicants.

When U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was appointed to the Justice Department, he did not help the cause. According to Sessions, “there may well be some benefits to medical marijuana, and it’s perfectly appropriate to study it,” but refused to allow any additional cultivation applications to be dealt with by the DOJ.

Without the ability to grow cannabis legally, researchers are unable to properly study the safety, efficacy, and medical uses of marijuana. This creates a frustrating catch-22, where the lack of available, legitimate marijuana research leaves Congress unable to examine sufficient evidence to legalize marijuana use.

With a once again uncooperative DOJ, researchers are still unable to obtain licenses to grow and study marijuana.

According to Gaetz, “The Medical Cannabis Research Act helps break that logjam, allowing researchers to study medical cannabis without fear of legal jeopardy.”

The bill also includes permission for doctors employed with the Department of Veterans Affairs to discuss medical marijuana with their patients and are allowed to provide information about federally-approved cannabis clinical trials to their veteran patients.

The bill, however, contains a contested provision that prevents anyone with a “conviction for a felony or drug-related misdemeanor” from being affiliated with cannabis research cultivation programs. This has caused some alarm among constituents, particularly The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Human Rights Watch, and the Drug Policy Alliance who have condemned the provision, urging Congress “to strike this unnecessary, punitive ban on individuals with previous drug law violations.”

Representative Gaetz, who drafted the bill, testified before the House Judiciary Committee that the drug conviction aspect was not included in the initial draft of the bill. It was only added after he consulted with people already involved in the cannabis industry, who urged him to add the language in an effort to head off those already opposed to the license bill.

Eventually, a compromise was made, allowing those with a “drug-related misdemeanor” to apply for a license, but continuing to ban felons from obtaining a license to grow marijuana for research purposes. Hopefully the passage of this bill will mark the first step in the long road to overturning the arcane and improvident classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic.

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