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DEA Adds New Rule to Encourage Cannabis Research

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Dec 21, 2020   
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The US federal government has enacted a long-awaited rule to improve the quantity, quality, and accessibility of cannabis for scientific researchers.

First proposed back in March by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the rule will amend the existing regulations linked to the Controlled Substance Act, a statute that has long hindered the progress of cannabis research in the US.

While finally approved on December 18, the new rule won’t come into effect until January 19, 2021. From then, the hope is that more researchers will be able to access cannabis from the DEA.

Federal approval

Despite receiving over 30 applications since 2016 to “provide researchers with a more varied and robust supply of marijuana,” only one cultivation facility – a research department at the University of Mississippi – is authorized by the DEA to produce cannabis material for scientific research.

The administration said it planned to review these pending applications last August, as well as propose new cultivation regulations.

Those proposals were then published on March 23 for public comment. Following a review of these comments, the proposals were finally put to the Federal Register this month, largely unaltered.

Under the new rule, the DEA’s powers will be extended; all approved cultivators will have to deliver their crops, not to the researchers directly, but to the DEA. These shipments will be required within four months of the harvest, and the agency will have the exclusive right of importing, exporting, and wholesale trading stocks of all cannabis types other than medicinal preparations.

This level of control would prevent researchers from acquiring cannabis from state-legal sources, such as dispensaries. Incidentally, a marijuana research bill that passed the US House of Representatives on December 16 would permit this more informal cannabis sourcing, if approved by the Senate.

NIDA remains

Even with the new rule in place, the DEA’s system of cannabis cultivation and research licensing will still involve the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), which contracts the cultivation facility at the University of Mississippi.

Yet, back in April, the release of a DEA memo revealed that the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel had ordered the DEA to take complete control of marijuana cultivation, in order to comply with the United Nation’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Under the Single Convention, all adhering countries must establish “a single government agency” to oversee the cultivation and purchasing of marijuana, if they so choose to permit its farming. Thus, by having two agencies to oversee cultivation, the DEA and NIDA, the US could be considered in breach of the international treaty.

This issue and the role of NIDA was brought up in the public comment period of the DEA’s proposals. In response, the DEA wrote that, “scientific and medical research is likely to benefit from the NIDA DSP’s [Drug Supply Program] continued involvement in these efforts.”

“Ultimately, the purpose of this rule is to expand researchers’ options for obtaining marihuana, not eliminate them,” the statement reads, “a result best achieved by allowing the NIDA DSP to continue to operate, while also registering additional marihuana growers.”

However, the analysis of the new rule provided to the Federal Register does acknowledge some transfer of responsibilities from NIDA to the DEA.

“DEA anticipates that there will be a transfer of economic activity from NIDA to DEA as well as several new costs as a result of this rule,” one section reads.

The good stuff, for research

High-grade cannabis is sorely needed for scientific research. A study conducted last year carried out on cannabis from the University of Mississippi found the crop genetically closer to hemp than most market-sold cannabis.

Scientists have also complained that the Mississippi cannabis is generally of poor quality and tainted by impurities.

“SRI used [cannabis from the University of Mississippi] for its phase two trials,” wrote the Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) in its lawsuit against the DEA last year. “It arrived in powdered form, tainted with extraneous material like sticks and seeds, and many samples were moldy.”


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