A bipartisan marijuana research bill that passed in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday will be “enacted into law very soon,” the Democratic sponsor said on Wednesday. But getting the limited, research-focused legislation in shape for Senate approval took significant compromise, he explained.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) spoke about the “Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act” at a briefing organized by the U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC), expressing confidence that it’s positioned to become the first piece of standalone marijuana reform legislation in the nation’s history to reach the president’s desk and become law.
When it was introduced earlier this month—billed as a merger of separate, standalone House and Senate cannabis research legislation that already passed in each respective chamber—one key provision of the House version was notably omitted that would have allowed scientists to access marijuana from state-legal dispensaries for study purposes.
The final product that’s now heading to a concurrence vote in the Senate after passing in the House by a vote of 325-95 this week is in fact virtually identical to the original Senate bill from Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA).
Blumenauer said that during his meetings with Grassley, the two agreed that they “wanted to get this across the finish line,” which ultimately meant that the House champion needed to make a “compromise that most of the advocates would prefer we didn’t, in terms of what would be the type of cannabis that would be available.”
“I thought that that was a modest compromise to be able to get the research piece finally enacted,” Blumenauer said. “We desperately need to be able to make sure that we can do that.”
But while lawmakers across the aisle have made clear that they support streamlining and modernizing marijuana research, especially with a majority of states already having enacted some form of legalization, the idea of letting scientists obtain cannabis from state-legal dispensaries was apparently a bridge too far for Senate negotiators.
Keeping that language from the original House bill from Blumenauer and prohibitionist Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) would have been a tacit admission of the reality that marijuana retailers exist across the U.S. despite federal prohibition, and that could have compromised the measure’s chances of passage in the Senate, a congressional source familiar with the thinking told Marijuana Moment.
Watch the congressman discuss his cannabis research bill, starting around 51:05 into the video below:
“So we have compromised the language. I think my language is better. I think most of the advocates would rather have my bill—but I didn’t want the perfect be the enemy of the better,” Blumenauer said at the briefing on Wednesday. “And so I made some concessions. The bill form that we have is one that will be acceptable to both the House and the Senate, and we’re going to get it enacted into law very soon.”
To the congressman’s credit, the fact that 95 GOP House members voted against the bipartisan research proposal on Tuesday does signal that any bill that deals with marijuana at all—no matter how narrowly tailored and bipartisan—still faces knee-jerk resistance in some corners of Congress. And the 60-vote threshold needed to pass legislation is the Senate is steep, leaving little room for dissent.
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So while even the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Nora Volkow, has said that she supports letting researchers access marijuana that’s available in commercial state markets across the country, that component was sidelined in the interest of getting something passed this session.
It’s unclear when the Senate will take up the House-passed bill, but a source told Marijuana Moment last week that the chamber is expected to “move quickly” on the legislation.
Under the legislation, the U.S. attorney general would be given a 60-day deadline to either approve a given application or request supplemental information from the marijuana research applicant. It would also create a more efficient pathway for researchers who request larger quantities of cannabis.
Further, the bill would encourage the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop cannabis-derived medicines. One way it proposed 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) would get a mandate to approve applications to be manufacturers of marijuana-derived, FDA-approved drugs under the bill. Manufacturers would also be allowed to import cannabis materials to facilitate research into the plant’s therapeutic potential.
Another section would require 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 on Monday 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 don’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 would 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.
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 NIDA recently announced that it will be accepting applications from those authorized growers for one new contractor to supply the agency with cannabis for research purposes.
Meanwhile, large-scale infrastructure legislation that was signed by Biden in November 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.
House Appropriations Committee leaders recently introduced a report on Fiscal Year 2023 spending legislation that says while they appreciate that NIDA has submitted documentation outlining the research implications of the strict scheduling of certain substances, there are still challenges such as the fact that scientists are still not able to access cannabis from dispensaries.
The report also talks about the need to develop “an objective standard to measure marijuana impairment to ensure highway safety.” And it further emphasizes that part of the solution means freeing up researchers to obtain cannabis products from state-legal retailers that reflect “the diversity, quality, and potency of products commonly available to patients or consumers.”
The committee additionally argued that funding for marijuana research has not kept pace with the spread of the state-level legalization movement, and it encouraged the National Institutes on Health (NIH) to support increased studies into potential therapeutic applications of cannabis and its constituents.
Meanwhile, the new bipartisan, bicameral bill that passed the House was filed on the same day that a long-awaited Senate marijuana legalization bill was finally filed—more than a year after a draft version was first released by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and fellow sponsors.
While the prospects of that wide-ranging legislation making it through the Senate with a 60-vote threshold are dubious, an already-passed bipartisan cannabis research proposal that’s even being sponsored by a prohibitionist like Harris seems like a comparably simple, albeit incremental, reform that stands a solid chance of being enacted if there are no procedural hiccups along the way.
President Joe Biden might be against adult-use legalization, but he campaigned on other incremental reforms like decriminalization, rescheduling and letting states set their own cannabis policies. He’s expressed interest in the medical potential of marijuana and has advocated for more research, so it’s likely that he would sign the bipartisan bill if it’s ultimately sent to his desk.
Meanwhile, a key Senate Judiciary subcommittee also held a hearing on Tuesday to discuss next steps for federal cannabis reform. The panel is chaired by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who is one of the three prime sponsors on the newly filed legalization bill.
At Wednesday’s briefing, Blumenauer also talked about the bipartisan Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act. He said it’s another example of incremental, popular reform that could “be the path forward to complete legalization.”
While the chances of passing comprehensive legalization with major social equity provisions through the Senate are questionable, the cannabis banking legislation enjoys sizable bipartisan support.
“If we’re able to move SAFE Banking here, not only do we solve this horrific problem of injustice of inequality, public safety—but we’re breaking the logjam in terms of cannabis legislation because there will be no doubt about where people are after they have to vote on this. And you will find that more people will vote,” Blumenauer said.
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