Trump officials urged by lawmakers to lift restrictions on cannabis research

Bethan Rose Jenkins, Cannabis News Writer/Editorial

House lawmakers are becoming increasingly impatient with the federal government’s prohibitionist stance on cannabis. In an attempt to lift restrictions on the plant’s sale, use, possession, cultivation and research across the United States, lawmakers have prompted Trump officials to amend the rules. 

As of January 2020, 33 U.S. states have legalized cannabis for medical purposes. Nonetheless – due to restrictions on the plant’s use – research remains limited. It’s not just research that has been hindered due to prohibition but also, banking and commerce opportunities; a combination of things that have triggered bipartisan lawmakers to push for regulatory changes.

On Wednesday, January 15, the Health subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce conducted a cannabis hearing that extended over 3.5 hours. No such hearing has ever been carried out by the committee before. The primary goals of the hearing were to determine views held by government agencies in regards to cannabis, in addition to better understanding the efforts that have, so far, been carried out to resolve prohibition. 

FDA and DEA officials requested to clarify delays in cannabis research

Officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) felt the heat from bipartisan lawmakers at the recently-held conference. Debates arose regarding the implications of research limitations on the overall safety and efficacy of cannabis products.  

“States’ laws and federal policy are a thousand miles apart. As more states allow cannabis, the federal government still strictly controls and prohibits it, even restricting legitimate medical research,” argued subcommittee Chairwoman Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.).

Currently, the only cannabis supplier in the U.S. with DEA licensing is the University of Mississippi. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle proclaimed that this individual source puts severe limitations on the budding U.S. cannabis market.

“It’s time to get the data and let the decision be driven by the data,” said the subcommittee’s leading Republican Michael Burgess. However, officials made a point of saying that changes to U.S. cannabis laws are not likely to happen until more studies can confirm the plant’s health benefits.

Critics claim that the DEA is putting cannabis research on the backburner

As a Schedule 1 drug, more research must be carried out in order to confirm cannabis’ suitability as a treatment for widespread illnesses and ailments; research must first be approved by the DEA before it can be conducted. 

Senior policy adviser for the DEA, Matthew Strait, protested that the Agency is “fully committed” to cannabis research and supports it in every which way. In August of 2019, the Agency announced its plans to start increasing the number of federally-approved cultivators. Nonetheless, 33 applications were still pending by the end of last year.

During the cannabiscannabis, Strait attributed the holdup to the fact that research applications had been submitted incomplete or with faults. Democratic U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui responded to Strait during the hearing, arguing that the University of California, Berkeley is fully aware of how to fill out an application form properly.

Cannabis hearing didn’t welcome active industry participants

The hearing on cannabis prohibition was “long overdue, according to Massachusetts Democrat, Rep. Joseph Kennedy. While it’s good news that the hearing finally took place, the absence of “critical stakeholders” meant that views on the subject of cannabis reform were lacking.

Since nobody currently involved in the U.S. cannabis industry was invited to attend the hearing, a letter was sent by a broad coalition on their behalf. The coalition is pressing Congress to pass the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which would essentially eliminate cannabis from the list of controlled substances and enable federally-approved regulation.

Limitations on medical cannabis research have – based on comments from Strait – been acknowledged by the DEA. Although a fresh set of regulations have been developed to ensure more growers are able to get involved in the blossoming U.S. cannabis industry, Strait did not reveal when the outstanding applications would be reviewed.

The Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget must now review the proposed rules.