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Federal Court Orders DEA to Explain Inaction on Cannabis Cultivation Applications

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Aug 08, 2019   
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The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been ordered by the US Court of Appeals to explain why it hasn’t yet acted on the more than two dozen cannabis cultivation license applications it has received. 

Only one cultivation facility – a research department at the University of Mississippi – is currently authorized by the DEA to provide cannabis material to scientific researchers. And despite accepting applications in 2016 to end this monopoly and “provide researchers with a more varied and robust supply of marijuana,” not one license has been awarded. 

Defending the administration’s inaction in 2017, a DEA spokesperson stated that it didn’t have a timeline to approve or deny the 25 received applications.  

But now one of the original license applicants, the Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI), has filed a lawsuit against the DEA and called on the administration to finally respond to the cultivation license applicants.  

Why do researchers need more cultivation facilities?

A greater and more reliable supply of research-grade cannabis is sorely needed. One recent study carried out on cannabis from the University of Mississippi found the crop genetically closer to hemp than most cannabis sold on the market. 

Researchers have also complained that the federal grade cannabis is generally of poor quality and is sometimes tainted by noticeable impurities. 

“To comply with federal law, SRI must use federally-sourced cannabis, grown exclusively on a single 12-acre farm run by the University of Mississippi,” reads the opening statement of the SRI’s lawsuit

“SRI used this cannabis for its Phase II trials. It arrived in powdered form, tainted with extraneous material like sticks and seeds, and many samples were moldy. Whatever reasons the government may have for sanctioning this cannabis and no other, considerations of quality are not among them. It is not suited for any clinical trials, let alone the ones SRI is doing.”

“Simply put, this cannabis is sub-par.”

DEA given one month to provide answers

On July 29, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals found the SRI’s petition to be not “without merit,”  giving the otherwise ignored license applicants their first major procedural victory.  

The Court of Appeals issued an order in response to the SRI’s petition requiring the DEA to “file a response to the mandamus petition, not to exceed 7,800 words, within 30 days of the date of this order.” 

This gives the DEA until August 28 to explain why it has not responded to the dozens of prospective cultivators over the past three years. The circuit judges also ruled that the SRI will be able to file a short reply to the DEA, provided the reply is under 3,900 words and filed within 14 days of the DEA’s response.

In a public statement following the court’s ruling, Dr Sisley said “Hopefully, DEA will finally explain, in a court-filing available for public inspection, the answer to this question that has frustrated everyone.” 

Others are not quite as optimistic. Michael Sassano, founder and CEO of the Nevada-based cannabis cultivation operation Solaris Farms, told the Cannabis Business Times, “Dr Sue Sisley’s current motion will likely derive an answer which will fall in line with current federal ambiguity.”

“Researchers are leaving the US to develop in less corrupted environments that recognize cannabis as a proven medicine [and] that health decisions based on old mythology should not be in the hands of the DEA.” 

Lawmakers, patients, advocates add to pressure on DEA

The lawsuit brought by Dr Sisley and the SRI is not the only source of pressure for the DEA over its handling of the country’s cannabis regulation. 

A separate lawsuit, filed by a coalition of cannabis advocates and patients in May, was also recently taken up by a US district court. In this case, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the federal government must “promptly” make a decision over cannabis rescheduling to prevent medical cannabis patients from experiencing undue suffering as a result of legal uncertainty. A similar case had been dismissed the year before, but this time the court decided to keep the case open, so that the courts may act if the DEA doesn’t decide over cannabis scheduling within a reasonable timeframe. 

Thirty members of Congress also co-signed a letter in May, sent to the DEA and the US Attorney General William Barr, asking that the DEA and Department of Justice (DOJ) “do more to speed research on the medicinal benefits of cannabis.” 

Within the letter, the lawmakers note that many of the signatories have written to the two bodies before about cannabis policy “because the matter is of such importance.” The lawmakers also specifically reference the DEA’s inaction over the cultivation license applications in the letter, asking “What is the current status of the 26 cannabis manufacturer applications? How long has each been pending before [the] DOJ and DEA?”

As of early August, the lawmakers have not received a reply from neither the DEA or the Department of Justice. 

Alexander Beadle

Science Writer

Alexander Beadle has been working as a freelance science writer since 2017 and has covered the cannabis industry for Analytical Cannabis since 2018. He has also written for our sister publication, Technology Networks, and the cannabis industry consultant firm Prohibition Partners, among others. Alexander holds a Master's in Materials Chemistry from the University of St. Andrews, where he won a Chemistry Purdie scholarship, and conducted research into zeolite crystal growth mechanisms and the action of single-molecule transistors.


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