DEA lawsuit memo claims that international law was infringed by U.S. cannabis research policy for decades

Bethan Rose Jenkins, Cannabis News Writer/Editorial

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been obligated to publish an internal document that allegedly prevented a significant number of cannabis manufacturers from conducting research into the plant.

According to the details of a lawsuit filed in March under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) one of the numerous applicants requiring federal authorization for cannabis research  the DEA purposely avoided approving additional manufacturers.

A “secret” document has been forcefully exposed, thanks to the Trump administration’s Office of Legal Counsel. It clarified that international drug treaties were allegedly violated by the DEA, with the Justice Department blaming the Administration for infringement on international drug treaties and, consequently, delaying the existing licensing process. The case managed to reach a settlement on Tuesday, April 28, with the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) document being released by the DEA the following day.

Confidential parts of the June 2018 memo are believed to have been concealed before the document was published on the Justice Department’s official site. “Licensing Marijuana Cultivation in Compliance with the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs” is the name of the document that the plaintiffs say the DEA had previously unredacted; and therefore violated an international treaty from 1961.

“The parties acknowledge that this Settlement Agreement is entered into solely for the purpose of settling and compromising the claims in this action without further litigation, and it shall not be construed as evidence or as an admission regarding any issues of law or fact, or regarding the truth or validity of any allegation or claim raised in this action, or as evidence or as an admission by Defendants regarding Plaintiff’s entitlement to any relief (including attorneys’ fees or other litigation costs) under the Freedom of Information Act,” read the text of the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona states.

OLC secretly issued an unredacted 2018 memo preventing approvals for cannabis research in the U.S. 

Back in 2016, cannabis researchers were delighted to discover that the DEA would be approving a new load of manufacturers. Excitement soon turned into frustration, what with applicants having had no response from the Agency. On the plus side, the 2018 memo has made it clear exactly why manufacturers have been treated in such an unfavorable way.

The OLC noted how the memo did not abide by the international Single Convention treaty that requires a sole federal agency to maintain control over the buying and possession of research-cultivated cannabis. Since the process of approving additional cannabis manufacturers has been managed by both the DEA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the treaty obligation was officially breached.

As per orders from the Department of Justice, the DEA must revise its rule. This, the OLC says, will ensure that additional cultivators can be included in the flourishing U.S. cannabis industry; as well as provide patients with safe and effective plant-based medicines.The lawsuit states that the DEA must amend its existing practices and fulfil changes to the policy that was initially announced in 2016, so as to act in accordance with the Single Convention.

“DEA must adopt a framework in which it purchases and takes possession of the entire [cannabis] crop of each licensee after the crop is harvested. In addition, DEA must generally monopolize the import, export, wholesale trade, and stock maintenance of lawfully grown [cannabis],” reads the memo. 

The Justice Department went on to say that, under the CSA, DEA can only legally carry out registration for cannabis research grower applications if the registration process is “consistent with the Single Convention.” Those obligations can be satisfied in more ways than one under the Single Convention, says the Department. However, the minimum requirements of the agreement must be complied with by the federal government for cannabis cultivation licenses to be awarded.

Moreover, the memo outlined how the government made a false presumption regarding international treaty compliance; the Agency had the NIDA providing regulation for a single cannabis grow operation for research purposes, whereas the DEA was designated the role of registering qualifying scientists authorized to research cannabis products.

Based on the memo, there are three primary reasons why the DEA committed wrongdoing, They are as follows:

“We conclude that the existing licensing framework departs from Article 23 [under the Single Convention] in three respects. First, the division of responsibilities between DEA and NIDA, a component of the Department of Health and Human Services (‘HHS’), contravenes Article 23(2)’s requirement that all Article 23 functions be carried out by a single government agency. Second, neither of the two government agencies ‘take[s] physical possession’ of the [cannabis] grown by the National Center, as required by Article 23(2)(d). Third, no federal agency exercises a monopoly over the wholesale trade in [cannabis], as required by Article 23(2)(e).”

The outlook for cannabis research in the U.S. 

It’s been an ongoing battle for scientists in the U.S. who wish to conduct studies into the medical potential of cannabis. Years of fighting has been initiated on the behalf of scientists, who have felt increasingly defeated in their efforts. Although some cannabis is available for research purposes, the quality is far from desirable. 

“Effectively, 200 million Americans can access cannabis right now, but a doctor or scientist can’t,” said the founder of cannabis analytical firm Biopharmaceutical Research Company, George Hodgin, during a recent interview with NBC News. “It is, at best, irresponsible, and, at worst, it’s dangerous.”

Thankfully, the official publication of the “Licensing Marijuana Cultivation in Compliance with the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs” memo has shone some light onto the reasons why cannabis research applicants have been ignored. Plus, the DEA announced that it would be in charge of the purchasing and possession of research-grade cannabis prior to the document’s release. 

With that being said, compliance with international treaties could be on the horizon and the U.S. medical cannabis industry which is forecast to grow to $30 billion by 2025can continue to blossom.