Lawmakers approve expanding access to cannabis for research purposes

click to enlarge Lawmakers approve expanding access to cannabis for research purposes
A new federal law will allow scientists to study cannabis without fear or unnecessary red tape.

After decades of keeping researchers largely in the dark when it comes to cannabis, the federal government is ready to shine a little light for the scientific community.

The Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act passed in the U.S. House in July and was approved in the Senate by a voice vote on Nov. 16. President Biden intends to sign it into law, according to Bloomberg News. The bill will expand opportunities for cannabis research and remove a lot of red tape surrounding the issue.

The news comes just weeks after Biden announced a handful of federal cannabis reforms, including initiating a review of cannabis' status as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I drugs are considered to have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical uses. Medical marijuana, in one form or another, is legal in 46 states, calling into question whether cannabis should be scheduled so harshly.

For decades, research into cannabis has been hampered by its status as a Schedule I drug. Until just last year, the only cannabis that could be grown legally for research purposes came from the University of Mississippi. Researchers were hamstrung not only by the lack of cannabis available, but also because it was low-quality and did not match the level of cannabis being produced for the nation's legal and illicit markets. The Drug Enforcement Administration has since granted approval to six additional producers of cannabis for research.

A provision of the bill heading to Biden's desk directly addresses the shortage of cannabis for research by directing the DEA to "assess whether there is an adequate and uninterrupted supply of marijuana for research purposes."

One key way this bill will further expand the amount of cannabis available for research is by allowing the DEA to approve certain licensed institutions — medical schools, research institutions and practitioners, for example — to produce and distribute their own cannabis for research purposes. The bill also allows commercial producers of cannabis-derived drugs to register with the DEA in a more streamlined process.

Additional provisions in the bill will allow physicians to freely discuss potential benefits of medical marijuana or cannabinoid use with patients, a practice that is currently prohibited under federal law. The bill will also require that relevant federal agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, produce reports on the therapeutic benefits of cannabis for various conditions, such as epilepsy. ♦

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