U.S. House Judiciary Committee Passes Act on Growing Medicinal Cannabis for Research
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The U.S. House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the administration of justice in federal courts and judicial proceedings, has approved a bill that would make it easier for researchers to study the medical benefits of cannabis by allowing more cannabis to be grown in the U.S. for research purposes.
Under current U.S. policy, the University of Mississippi is the sole federally licensed provider of cannabis for use in American research studies. The university maintains a small and secure plot of land for growing cannabis to satisfy the needs of projects that are approved and funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), or other similar bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
This policy has come under fire from academics involved in cannabis research who claim that these governing bodies are unfairly withholding approval and funding for some projects. It is claimed these studies could establish beneficial effects of cannabis and that these bodies are under pressure to reflect the federal stance that cannabis has “no currently accepted medical use”. Without having access to the funding to carry out more research, it becomes near-impossible to prove the medical benefits of cannabis in order to challenge this federal stance and receive more funding, creating a Catch-22 for those in the field.
The contents of the bill
The bill, H.R. 5634, or the “Medical Cannabis Research Act of 2018” as it is more commonly known, was brought before the Committee by Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL). For the most part, it outlines a system that would increase the number of cannabis cultivators holding federal licenses to supply scientific researchers. The bill also contains a minor provision that would allow healthcare providers who treat military veterans to recommend participation in cannabis clinical trials.
In order to ensure that additional licenses will be issued once framework is put in place, the bill includes a clause which would force Attorney General Jeff Sessions to approve the applications of at least two additional cultivation facilities for medical research cannabis within the first year of the bill becoming law. In successive years this would rise to three extra facilities per year until an “adequate and uninterrupted” supply of cannabis for research purposes is reached. Sessions has a track record of blocking medicinal cannabis research, and so it is hoped that the inclusion of this clause will force his hand for the good of advancing science research.
As well as outlining requirements for the Attorney General, the bill contains requirements for the cannabis cultivators that must be met in order to be considered for federal approval; these requirements ensure that cultivators only supply approved medical researcher facilities with their product. The bill also introduces guidelines as to the minimum number of strains the cultivators should be able to provide in a bid to improve the genetic diversity of material available for research purposes. Cultivators seeking federal approval must also have the means to test and isolate some of the major cannabinoids found in cannabis: for the purpose of determining chemical consistency, as well as providing a direct source for specific products or extracts that researchers may want to investigate.
The controversy surrounding worker requirements
The requirements also include a much more controversial provision - the bill would bar anybody with a “conviction for a felony or drug-related misdemeanor” from being associated in any way with the operations of the cultivator.
The inclusion of this provision has been heavily criticised by campaigners for drug policy reform and was the subject of a dispute between members of the Committee before the bill was approved.
On September 12, the day before the bill’s approval, a letter co-signed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Human Rights Watch, and the Drug Policy Alliance, among others, was delivered to the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte. The letter slammed the inclusion of this provision, stating “there is no legitimate health or public safety justification for the inclusion of this language and we urge you to strike this unnecessary, punitive ban on individuals with previous drug law violations [from the Act]”.
By creating a barrier to work for those with criminal records, the letter argues, the legislation would have a disproportionate impact on minorities. Despite white people and black people using drugs at similar rates, and whites being actually more likely to sell drugs, minorities continue to be prosecuted and imprisoned at significantly higher rates. The inclusion of this worker restriction could lead to otherwise-qualified minorities being unable to find work, which is a known contributor to recidivism. In order to improve public safety, it is argued that the logical action should be to reduce barriers to entering the workforce, thereby lowering the likelihood of recidivism.
The authors of the letter also highlight the vagueness of the language used in this portion of the bill. There is a worry that the requirement for “a criminal background check for all personnel involved in the operations of the manufacturer” could have unforeseen consequences.
The example they give is that of a university researcher that is given approval to grow cannabis under this legislation. Would that university then be unable to employ anybody with a drug-related criminal record? Where is the limit? Would it only affect the researchers in that department, or would it be stretched to apply to maintenance workers or administration staff?
In response to the criticism on this section of the bill, Rep. Gaetz said in the committee hearing that this restriction was only added in the latter stages of the bill being drafted, and it was done on the recommendation of industry professionals who felt the restriction would help legitimize the integrity of their research in the eyes of the public and lawmakers.
This claim was instantly refuted by both politicians and cannabis industry leaders. Morgan Fox, the communications director for the National Cannabis Industry Association stated in a text message that his organization “absolutely did not suggest that and does not support that restriction.”
Representative Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) responded to Rep. Gaetz’ claim on the House floor, retorting “Let's be real, the integrity of the research will be determined by peer review, not who grows some of the materials for use in the research.”
Chairman Goodlatte stated during the hearing that he is open to revising this restriction in future drafts of the bill, implying that he would be willing to remove restrictions for those with misdemeanors, if not those with felony convictions. He later issued a statement following the ruling, stating that “while there are many varying opinions on the issue of marijuana, one thing we all can agree on is that we need qualified researchers to study the science.”
What comes next?
With the bill being approved by the House Judiciary Committee, it will now be passed on to the House of Representatives for a formal vote. In order for the bill to become law it will have to pass in both the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the Republican-controlled Senate, and then be signed off by the President.
Rep. Gaetz is confident that his bill stands a good chance in the House and the Senate now that the Judiciary Committee has ruled positively on it. “I think that the hardest vote for Republicans to take on marijuana is their first one,” Gaetz told Rolling Stone following the ruling. “And so if we can create the broadest area of consensus to democratize access to research, I think, it will get us all thinking a lot more like adults going forward.”