The first major cannabis reform bill to pass through Congress in U.S. history—which will make studying marijuana much easier—was signed by President Joe Biden last week. Cannabis advocates say the bill marks a turning point in U.S. cannabis policy and the general understanding about how the plant works.
The Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act will streamline the application process for cannabis research, encourage the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals and require the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to produce a report for Congress on the potential benefits and harms of the drug. The law comes just short of changing continued federal scheduling of cannabis on the list of controlled substances.
The research bill was introduced in July and received a 325-90 vote in the House and was unanimously passed in the Senate.
Currently, cannabis is categorized as a Schedule I drug, meaning the federal government does not recognize its medical efficacy and considers it to be dangerously addictive. Other drugs in this category include heroin, LSD, psilocybin, MDMA and bath salts.
Scientists are prohibited from experimenting with these drugs without special permission from multiple agencies inside the federal government. These applications can take years to resolve and are often dismissed out of hand.
Because of this setup, advocacy claims that cannabis can be used to treat various ailments have gone mostly untested, and policymakers are forced to argue their sides using anecdotes and personal experiences.
But with the passage of the medical cannabis research bill, the process that scientists must go through to apply for approval to study marijuana will be streamlined.
The bill instructs the HHS to find where current cannabis policies create barriers for research and report on how to remove those barriers. It also will allow institutions to cultivate their own cannabis samples for use in studies. Lawmakers decided against allowing scientists to gain access to marijuana grown by state-legal cannabis producers, however.
Foreseeing possible efforts to delay application approvals, the bill’s authors also included language that requires the U.S. attorney general to approve or request additional information from applicants within 60 days of receiving their applications.
“We need to do the research first,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). “And the federal government, sadly, has been woefully behind the times on this front. This bill will help fix that.”
Cannabis Caucus Praises Signing
In a press release from Cannabis Caucus Co-Chairs Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Brian Mast (R-FL), the legislators said: “We celebrate the enactment of this critical and long-overdue legislation, and we know there is much more to do to remedy the ongoing harms of the failed war on drugs. Our caucus will continue working to reimagine the federal government’s approach to cannabis and enact further reforms.” The caucus said it plans to push for the passage of SAFE Banking, the Veterans Equal Access Act, the PREPARE Act and the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act in the coming weeks.
The bill is nearly identical to a Senate bill from Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA).
“I’m very pleased President Biden has signed into law our legislation to cut red tape around the marijuana research process,” tweeted Feinstein. “After years of negotiation, we’re finally enacting this bill that will result in critical research that could help millions.”
“Our new law will remove excessive barriers that make it difficult for researchers to study the effectiveness and safety of marijuana, and hopefully, give patients more treatment options,” said Schatz.
“We know that cannabidiol-derived medications can be effective for conditions like epilepsy. This bill will help refine current medical CBD practices and develop important new applications. After years of negotiation, I’m delighted that we’re finally enacting this bill that will result in critical research that could help millions,” Feinstein said.
“Thank you to Representatives Blumenauer, Harris, Griffith, Joyce, Mace, and Perlmutter, Delegate Norton, and Senators Feinstein, Grassley, Schatz, Durbin, Klobuchar, Tillis, Kaine, Ernst, Tester, and Murkowski for their leadership,” the president said on Dec. 2.
At the very least, the bill’s passage will likely lead to research that will find cannabis too innocuous to continue being labeled as a Schedule I drug. If the science finds that advocates have been right and there are actual medical applications for cannabis, then leaders will have data that will better support future reform efforts. Better research opportunities will also benefit cannabis industry leaders and advocates by giving them the opportunity to become better informed about the drug’s positive and negative aspects.
Most importantly, the bill should pave the way for better informed consumers. As more states legalize the drug, it becomes imperative that those purchasing and using it are made aware of its actual effects—as revealed through rigorous scientific study—rather than rely on unsubstantiated reports by fellow users and retailers.
Meanwhile, lawmakers appear to be preparing for future legalization. Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) filed a bill last week that would help prepare the country for future legalization. The Preparing Regulators Effectively for a Post-Prohibition Adult-Use Regulated Environment Act (PREPARE Act) would direct the U.S. attorney general to create an advisory commission tasked with making regulatory recommendations for a U.S. cannabis industry.
The signing of the research bill marks the second move from Biden to address cannabis reform in recent months. In October, Biden asked the Secretary of the HHS and the U.S. attorney general to begin the process of reviewing the rescheduling options for cannabis. He also pardoned all current and previous federal prisoners who were arrested for “simple” marijuana possession, although it was revealed that there are no prisoners currently being held in federal prison for the minor offense.