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The New Cannabis Research Bill, Explained

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Jul 23, 2019   
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A bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House of Representatives last Wednesday introduced a new bill that would accelerate the approval process for cannabis research and make it easier for researchers to obtain the cannabis needed for their studies. 

US Representatives Andy Harris, MD (R-MD), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), H Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Debbie Dingell (D-MI), and Rob Bishop (R-UT) were the sponsors of the bill, which was titled the Medical Marijuana Research Act of 2019. 

This isn’t to be confused with HR 601, the Medical Cannabis Research Act of 2019, as introduced by Representative Matt Gaetz in January. 

At the time of writing, the official text of the bill (HR 3797) has not yet been made available by the Library of Congress, though it is expected to be added in due course. However, a version of the bill has been made available to view and download by the cannabis news outlet Marijuana Moment.

What's in the new medical research bill?

The Medical Marijuana Research Act aims to address two of the largest barriers that currently restrict the ability of researchers to properly study the Schedule 1 drug. 

Firstly, it introduces a new registration process for cannabis science researchers. According to the sponsors of the legislation, this new process should be effective in “reducing approval waiting times, costly security measures, and additional, unnecessary levers of protocol review” that currently complicate cannabis research. 

The second major section of the bill relates to the supply of cannabis for research. 

Under the 1961 international Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, the federal government is the only body that is allowed to provide cannabis for research, and the federal government’s drug arm, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), only has one authorized cannabis supplier, the University of Mississippi, which operates under a contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

In 2016, the DEA announced a policy change that would increase the number of authorized cannabis manufacturers that could supply medical-grade research cannabis, but to date the DEA has not approved any of the 26 cultivators that applied under this policy. As a result the University of Mississippi has remained the sole supplier of research cannabis in the United States, despite research arguing that the cannabis supplied by this facility is, in fact, genetically closer to hemp, and both visually and chemically unrepresentative of the cannabis being found on the legal market.

The new Medical Marijuana Research Act would see this addressed by reforming production and distribution regulations to allow researchers to obtain research-grade cannabis from private manufacturers. The language of the bill would have the attorney general register the first research cannabis manufacturing and distribution applicants “not later than the day that is one year after the date of enactment” of the bill. It also explicitly states that there is to be no cap on the maximum number of manufacturers and distributors that could register to supply cannabis under the bill.

In addition to addressing these two major issues, the bill also includes a clause that would require the secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services to author a report within five years of the enactment of the bill which details the status and results of the then-currently available body of research on cannabis. 

Legislative support for the proposal

Writing in an opinion column for the Hill, Reps. Harris and Blumenauer hailed the bipartisan support that the bill has managed to gain thus far.

“At first glance, it may seem like a strange partnership: one of the most vocal critics of the ever-advancing tide of cannabis legalization and one of legalization’s most ardent advocates co-sponsoring a cannabis bill together,” they begin. “Dig a bit deeper into the debate, however, and our odd couple makes a bit more sense.”

The two representatives explain that while they disagree on many aspects of cannabis reform, one area where they and others have found unity is on the idea that the federal government should not be standing in the way of legitimate, scientific medical cannabis research. 

“Irrespective of where one falls on the ideological spectrum with respect to further legalization, we can all agree that the American people deserve to know what’s going on with marijuana,” the representatives conclude. 

“It is therefore unconscionable that the federal government stands as the chief impediment to legitimate medical research that will ensure American physicians, patients, purchasers, and constituents have access to the information they need to make an informed decision about marijuana. Congress must act. And we must act now.”

The other sponsors of the bill have also been vocal in their support. In a press release, Representative Andy Harris said, “As a physician who has conducted NIH-sponsored research, I cannot stress enough how critical this legislation is to the scientific community. This legislation will facilitate that research by removing the unnecessary administrative barriers that deter qualified researchers from thoroughly studying medical marijuana.”

In the same press release, Representative Zoe Lofgren deemed the bill “common-sense legislation,” and Reps. Bishop, Griffith, and Dingell all brought to attention the good that the bill could do in removing research barriers and supporting efforts to characterize the medicinal benefits and risks of cannabis use.  

Bill already backed by major organizations

Many prominent organizations, including both cannabis reform advocacy groups and cannabis prohibition groups, as well as medical associations, have released statements in support of the bill. 

Smart Colorado, a prominent cannabis prohibition group, was one of the many cannabis policy groups to include a statement in the press release by Representative Harris. Its co-founder and national policy director, Diane Carlson, said in the statement, “We applaud the leadership of the congressional sponsors of the Medical Marijuana Research Act of 2019.”

“For years Smart Colorado and its community partners and supporters have advocated for much-needed research to address information gaps. We believe this research is particularly important when it comes to today’s new and very different marijuana products and unprecedentedly high THC potencies. This research could help protect kids and inform adults,” wrote Carlson.

“Again, we are grateful for the leadership provided by the sponsors and urge others to support the Medical Marijuana Research Act of 2019, which has important and far-reaching nationwide implications.”

A spokesperson for the pro-cannabis advocacy group, the Marijuana Policy Project, specifically applauded Congressman Harris for supporting the bill despite his history of opposing cannabis reform.

“There isn’t much that the Marijuana Policy Project and Congressman Harris agree on when it comes to the federal government’s position on cannabis, but we applaud his sponsorship of the Medical Marijuana Research Act of 2019 which would reduce the barriers to cannabis research. The fact that such a bill is even necessary points out how out of touch the feds actually are,” said Don Murphy, director of federal policies. 

“We stand with patients in calling for the best science available to determine marijuana’s true medicinal value. We would add however that while this research is being conducted, patients should be given the care and compassion they deserve, not hand cuffs and convictions.”

Arthur C Evans Jr, CEO of the American Psychological Association, also added his voice to the press release on behalf of the medical association. 

“Scientists who have been discouraged from studying cannabis because of the hurdles associated with the registration process, redundant protocol reviews and security requirements will be encouraged by this bill, which greatly simplifies the whole process,” he said. 

“Without access to an expanded range of cannabis products, scientific research cannot hope to keep pace with the expanding recreational and medicinal cannabis marketplace. This bill will facilitate the rapid approval of applications to manufacture cannabis products from non-government sources, resulting in a supply that can meet the needs of cannabis researchers.”

Can the bill gather enough legislative support to pass? 

Speaking to Marijuana Business Daily, Douglas Bergman, director of Ohio State University’s Drug Enforcement and Policy Center, said that he believes that niche bills, such as this new research bill, generally have a better chance at getting approved than a more sweeping cannabis reform measure. 

The bill has been referred to the Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Committee on the Judiciary for further consideration. If the bill makes it out of committee it will be read, debated, and voted on by the full House of Representatives, whose Democratic majority could favor the passage of the bill. 

If the bill successfully makes it though the House it will then need to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate and be signed off by the President in order to become law. 

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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