Senate Lifts Hold On House-Passed Marijuana Research Bill, With Expedited Vote Expected Soon

A U.S. Senate hold on a House-passed bipartisan marijuana research bill has been lifted, with an expedited floor vote expected imminently, according to a Senate source.

If the measure passes, it would mean Congress would be delivering a piece of standalone cannabis reform legislation to the president’s desk for the first time ever. The exact timing of the vote, which will be held under unanimous consent, is currently unclear.

A GOP senator had placed a hold on the “Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act” in September. But as momentum for cannabis reform has picked up following the summer recess—with President Joe Biden issuing a mass marijuana pardon last month and House lawmakers holding a hearing on legalization, for example—that hold has now been lifted.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) has expressed support for marijuana research, but he made a procedural protest that delayed the action while the senators left for a multi-week recess around the midterm elections.

The research bill was filed in July and quickly moved through the House before moving to the Senate. The hold was lifted on Tuesday, the same day that a House subcommittee held a hearing on cannabis legalization.

Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Andy Harris (R-MD) sponsored the House version, 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.

The bipartisan nature of the legislation is evidenced by both the fact that its sponsors are diametrically opposed on broader marijuana reform policy and that leadership had agreed to an expedited legislative process prior to Cornyn’s objection.

Senate majority and minority leaders had agreed to “hotline” the bill, contacting members to give them a relatively short window of time to voice any objections to the legislation. A House source told Marijuana Moment at the time that Cornyn held up the cannabis bill, as well as other House legislation, because of broader frustrations that the opposite chamber hadn’t acted on his own unrelated proposals.

Legalization advocates and prohibitionists alike have pushed for swift passage of the research bill, even as the former group is hoping to see more comprehensive cannabis legislation advance before the end of the session.

Back in September, researchers and other advocates associated with the prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches To Marijuana (SAM) sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), imploring him to bring the research measure to a vote.

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.

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Blumenauer said at briefing organized by the U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC) this summer that getting the limited, research-focused legislation in shape for Senate approval took compromise.

The congressman 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.”

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 late last month 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.

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.

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.

Separately, a bipartisan duo of congressional lawmakers filed a bill in July to set a federal marijuana research agenda and create a designation for universities to carry out cannabis studies with federal grant money.

The legislation from Reps. Scott Peters (D-CA) and Dave Joyce (R-OH) is titled the “Developing and Nationalizing Key Cannabis Research Act.” The bill text doesn’t abbreviate the title, so it’s not clear if the intent was to play into cannabis consumer nomenclature with the introduction of the DANK Cannabis Research Act.

Meanwhile, the bipartisan, bicameral research bill was introduced 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.

Recognizing that the bill is unlikely to garner the required 60 votes to pass in the chamber, however, Schumer has been working with bicameral and bipartisan offices to develop a package of incremental cannabis reforms that’s expected to be filed in the lame duck session.

That so-called SAFE Plus bill is expected to contain marijuana banking protections and other modest proposals on expungements, veterans’ medical cannabis access and more.

Schumer said late last month that Congress is getting “very close” to introducing and passing the marijuana reform package, citing progress he’s made in discussions with a “bunch of Republican senators.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said on Sunday that, with Republicans projected to win a majority of the House of Representatives after last week’s midterm elections, Democrats who want to enact marijuana reform must either do it “now” during the lame duck session or wait until “many years from now” when his party has a shot at controlling Congress again.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), the House sponsor of the standalone marijuana banking bill, said he spoke with Schumer at an event at the White House in September and discussed the need to enact the bipartisan reform this session.

Even the incremental marijuana package may face resistance from some lawmakers depending on its final contents. But a cannabis research proposal that’s even being sponsored by a prohibitionist like Harris seems like a comparably simple, albeit incremental, reform that the president is expected to sign into law.

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 also issued a mass marijuana pardon and directed an administrative review into cannabis scheduling last month.

The president has 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 sent to his desk.

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