President Joe Biden has officially signed a marijuana research bill into law, making history by enacting the first piece of standalone federal cannabis reform legislation in U.S. history.
The law gives the U.S. attorney general 60 days to either approve a given application or request supplemental information from the marijuana research applicant. It also creates a more efficient pathway for researchers who request larger quantities of cannabis.
The president remains opposed to federal cannabis legalization, but he campaigned on a number of more modest marijuana reforms, including promoting research, decriminalization and rescheduling cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
Biden also issued a mass pardon for Americans who’ve committed federal marijuana possession cases in October and directed an administrative review into cannabis scheduling. The White House recently listed those actions among the “top accomplishments” for the president.
Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Andy Harris (R-MD) sponsored the House version of the research legislation, which is substantively identical to a Senate bill from Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) that previously cleared that chamber.
“Thank you to Representatives Blumenauer, Harris, Griffith, Joyce, Mace, and Perlmutter, Delegate Norton, and Senators Feinstein, Grassley, Schatz, Durbin, Klobuchar, Tillis, Kaine, Ernst, Tester, and Murkowski for their leadership,” the president said on Friday.
The four co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus—Blumenauer and Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Brian Mast (R-FL)—released a joint statement following the president’s signing:
“For decades, the federal government has stood in the way of science and progress—peddling a misguided and discriminatory approach to cannabis. Today marks a monumental step in remedying our federal cannabis laws,” they said. “The Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act will make it easier to study the impacts and potential of cannabis.”
“Research is foundational for the path forward on cannabis policy. Research is essential to better understand the therapeutic benefits of cannabis that have the potential to help millions of Americans struggling with chronic pain, PTSD, multiple sclerosis, anxiety disorders and more.
We celebrate the enactment of this critical and long-overdue legislation, and we know there is much more to do to remedy the ongoing harms of the failed war on drugs. Our caucus will continue working to reimagine the federal government’s approach to cannabis and enact further reforms. In the coming weeks, we are committed to passing subsequent bipartisan, common-sense proposals like the SAFE Banking package, the Veterans Equal Access Act, the PREPARE Act, and the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act.”
Blumenauer and Harris previously championed a separate cannabis research bill that advanced through their chamber in April. Unlike that legislation, however, the newly approved bill notably does not include a provision that scientists had welcomed that would have allowed researchers to access cannabis from state-legal dispensaries to study.
The research legislation further encourages the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop cannabis-derived medicines. One way it proposes doing so is by allowing accredited medical and osteopathic schools, practitioners, research institutions, and manufacturers with a Schedule I registration to cultivate their own cannabis for research purposes.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is now mandated to approve applications to be manufacturers of marijuana-derived, FDA-approved drugs under the bill. Manufacturers will also be allowed to import cannabis materials to facilitate research into the plant’s therapeutic potential.
Another section requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to look at the health benefits and risks of marijuana as well as policies that are inhibiting research into cannabis that’s grown in legal states and provide recommendations on overcoming those barriers.
The bill further states that it “shall not be a violation of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) for a State-licensed physician to discuss” the risk and benefits of marijuana and cannabis-derived products with patients.
A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis published in July found that the proposal would reduce direct spending by less than $500,000 and would have a “negligible net change in the deficit.”
There are only a few changes in this new bill compared to the original version the Senate passed earlier this year.
For example, the text now says that researchers won’t need to notify or receive a review from DEA if change study protocols, as long as they already have a Schedule I registration. The previous language said broadly that researchers wouldn’t need to reapply for approval. Also, the new version makes more explicit references to cannabis in the text, rather than “drug” generally.
Another revision deals with a section that mandates the attorney general to conduct an annual review of the supply of cannabis that’s available for research purposes. The new bill says DOJ must carry out that review in consultation with HHS, and says that the latter department will need to submit a report to Congress if it determines that the supply is inadequate.
Finally, a section of the original bill concerning the importation of CBD for research purposes was removed from the new measure.
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Both the House and Senate passed earlier versions of their separate but similar cannabis research bills in late 2020, but nothing ended up getting to then-President Donald Trump’s desk by the end of the last Congress.
Congressional researchers separately released a report in March that details the challenges posed by ongoing federal prohibition and the options that lawmakers have available to address them.
DEA has taken steps in recent years to approve new cultivators of marijuana to be used in studies, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recently published a solicitation for applications from those authorized growers as it looks for new contractors to supply the agency with cannabis for research purposes.
Meanwhile, large-scale infrastructure legislation that was signed by Biden last year contains provisions aimed at allowing researchers to study the actual marijuana that consumers are purchasing from state-legal businesses instead of having to use only government-grown cannabis.
Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) sought an update this week on the status of a federal report into research barriers that are inhibiting the development of a standardized test for marijuana impairment on the roads, as required under that infrastructure legislation.
NIDA Director Nora Volkow told Marijuana Moment last year that scientists have been unnecessarily limited in the source of cannabis they’re permitted to study—and it makes sense to enact a policy change that expands their access to products available in state-legal markets.
The chairman of the subcommittee that held that hearing also said on Tuesday that he will soon be introducing a bill aimed at protecting federal workers from being denied security clearances over marijuana.
Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) filed a bill last month that would allow state-legal marijuana businesses to access certain federal Small Business Administration (SBA) loans and services that are available to companies in any other industry.
Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the 2024 president election last month.
In a speech announcing his candidacy, Trump signaled that drug policy will be a focal point of his campaign—but not by advocating for reform. He talked about waging “war on the cartels” and working with Congress to pass legislation to impose the death penalty on “drug dealers” who are “responsible for death, carnage and crime.”
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