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FOLLOW THE SCIENCE

Any changes in future policy to federally legalize cannabis will have to have some sort of basis in science, preferably studies that affirm safety and effectiveness. The problem is, the government currently restricts researchers from using the same cannabis that recreational users buy — instead using “research-grade” cannabis provided by the single approved source, the University of Mississippi research farm.

Now, a new study published in the journal Frontiers comes to the same conclusion as past studies: government-grown cannabis is genetically more similar to wild hemp than to the cannabis sold in licensed dispensaries. Compared to commercial cannabis, it has significantly lower levels of THC and CBD. Which doesn’t speak well for the agency charged with supervising the government research supply, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

As the study researchers wrote, “it is important that research examining the threats and benefits of Cannabis use accurately reflect the experiences of the general public.” So there is a general consensus that this NIDA-approved cannabis is inadequate for realistic research, and that current federal law that requires its use hinders scientists. However, rather than dig in its heels, the NIDA agrees.

Director Nora Volkow has publicly called for the policy to be changed, and has expressed support for researchers to be able to use cannabis from state legal retail dispensaries. And the Drug Enforcement Administration has announced it will seek to approve additional manufacturers to provide federal cannabis. The DEA is currently in the midst of reviewing grower applications to provide cannabis for research purposes, and in fact has notified three facilities they have been conditionally accepted. Yet it’s not clear how long it will take to iron out the Memorandums Of Agreement and actually get the party started.

In addition, somewhat hidden inside the massive $1.2 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act just signed into law by President Biden is another initial step toward better research outcomes. Prior legislative attempts to streamline the process for research scientists to access cannabis — such as the bipartisan Medical Marijuana Research Act — have never made it to the President’s desk. The language of this Act was once an amendment to the new Infrastructure bill, but was not included in the final version Biden signed.

What is part of the new IIJA, however, is a provision cloaked in the need for transportation safety. It requires the Secretary of Transportation, the Attorney General and the Secretary of Health and Human Services to jointly recommend how scientists can access retail-level cannabis for conducting studies on impaired driving. As Oregon representative Earl Blumenauer, who co-authored the original bill to allow scientists retail access, has stated, “It’s outrageous that we are outsourcing leadership in that research to Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada and others. It’s time to change the system.”