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After years of advocacy, cajoling and begging, cannabis researchers may finally be given access to cannabis sold in actual dispensaries for the purpose of scientific study. If a bill supported by federal lawmakers is passed, scientists will be enabled to better study drugged driving.

Cannabis research in the age of prohibition has been tough, but a bipartisan infrastructure bill that was recently approved by the Senate could change everything. The bill includes measures to improve the nation’s roads, bridges, sewage and other projects as well as language that will grant scientists access to retail cannabis products sold in states where the drug has been legalized for the purpose of studying impaired driving.

The measure requires the U.S. Transportation Secretary, Attorney General and Secretary of Health and Human Services to produce a report that will include recommendations on the creation of a national cannabis strain library. The collection will house samples of strains of cannabis that are available to retail consumers across the U.S. Researchers from states that have not legalized the drug will also be able to access these products.

Ole Miss Missed

This marks a major turning point for cannabis research. For years scientists and advocates have complained that study of the plant was limited by lack of access to proper marijuana samples. If scientists wanted to study marijuana directly, they were required to fight through a rigorous application process only to gain access to government-approved samples sourced from a single operation located at the University of Mississippi and funded by the National Institute On Drug Abuse (NIDA).

It’s been common knowledge for years that the University of Mississippi samples are subpar in quality compared to street marijuana and are useless for obtaining data about the wide variety of cannabis strains available for use in the U.S. According to a University of Northern Colorado study pre-printed in bioRxiv, the Ole Miss strain shared a closer “genetic affinity with hemp samples in most analyses” than commercial cannabis. The strain was also lower in both THC and CBD than retail flower, and some NIDA samples have even reportedly tested positive for mold.

In other words: All the research done using this crop as a sample source has potentially been rendered useless in regards of real-world knowledge. Cannabis science—which already suffers from a severe lack of data—is facing a crisis.

Promises Unfulfilled

In 2016 the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) under the Obama administration announced it would no longer restrict marijuana researchers to using samples from the University of Mississippi. The agency said it would begin considering other growers for a new program. It immediately began receiving applications from universities, research institutes, biotech startups and cannabis companies.

Unfortunately, President Donald Trump took the Oval Office soon after the announcement and appointed Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general. Sessions’ position in opposition to cannabis legalization resulted in the DEA slowing the process to a halt and leaving every application in limbo.

The Scottsdale Research Institute filed a lawsuit against the DEA in June, 2019. It was seeking to force the agency to process the applications and follow through with its original plan. The DEA responded, saying it planned to start the process but had to implement rules to regulate the program first.

Last year the agency finally released its proposed rules for the cannabis research program and said it had registered 595 applicants looking to take part. In May DEA announced on its website that it had approved several manufacturers to grow cannabis for the project.

“The Drug Enforcement Agency took an important step to increase opportunities for medical and scientific research,” said the agency. “DEA is nearing the end of its review of certain marijuana grower applications.” The applicants were provided with a Memorandum of Agreement outlining how the applicant and the agency will work together “to facilitate the production storage, packaging and distribution of marijuana.” The announcement goes on to say that a number of manufacturers would be moving on to the next step in the process and that the DEA would begin registering additional entities “soon.”

According to the plan, the agency will purchase cannabis supplies from authorized growers and then provide it to the National Institutes of Health, where researchers will be able to gain direct access.

Many are concerned that the plan already sounds needlessly complicated and are still unsure of when it will materialize. It’s taken years to get this far, and advocates have been left doubtful that even this new development will move the process along anytime soon. But federal lawmakers seem unwilling to wait as more states legalize cannabis and concerns over impaired driving heighten.

Legislative Baby Steps

In June Senator John Hickenlooper (D-CO) sponsored the amendment to the current infrastructure bill that could open research access. It was approved in committee, and the bill was subsequently passed in the Senate.

The infrastructure bill appears to have bipartisan support in Congress but has met with friction over tax hikes unrelated to the cannabis research amendment. Once the debate settles, the House is expected to pass the bill, at which point it’s fate will depend on President Joe Biden.

While it may only grant greater sample access to researchers looking to study impaired driving, this area of research will provide some of the most sought-after data in the entire field. The threat of cannabis-impaired driving—whether inflated by fear or not—is incredibly pressing, and it’s where scientists’ attentions are currently being drawn anyway. If the bill is passed with the amendment intact, there will be a flood of data coming our way about how cannabis affects driving. It’s highly likely that some of that data will also illuminate mysteries about how cannabis affects memory, cognitive function and other aspects of human consciousness as well. Hopefully, that will keep the scientists busy while the DEA gets its act together.

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