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US Cannabis Research Is Violating International Law, DEA Memo Reveals

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Apr 30, 2020   
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The current system for cultivating cannabis for research purposes in the US is in violation of international drug laws, according to a memo released by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 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.

But the US doesn’t have one single government agency to oversee marijuana cultivation; it has two.

While the DEA licenses marijuana cultivators, it doesn’t “purchase” or take physical possession of the crop. That role is partially overseen by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Now, thanks to the release of a DEA memo from June 2018, it’s been revealed that the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel ordered the DEA to take full responsibility of marijuana cultivation in the US, in order to comply with the Single Convention.

Federal disapproval

Back in 1961, 73 nations came together to create and ratify an international drug treaty, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The convention later came into force in the US in 1967.

According to the newly released memo, “the Single Convention requires parties either to prohibit marijuana cultivation altogether or, if they permit cultivation, to establish ‘a single government agency’ to oversee marijuana growers and generally to monopolize the wholesale trade in the marijuana crop.”

“That single agency must strictly regulate any lawful cultivation of marijuana by, among other things, ‘purchas[ing] and tak[ing] physical possession of [the] crops as soon as possible, but not later than four months after the end of the harvest.’”

As these two responsibilities are overseen by two different agencies, the DEA and NIDA, the Department of Justice concluded that the US isn’t currently complying with the convention.

“We conclude that DEA must change its current practices and the policy it announced in 2016 to comply with the Single Convention,” the memo reads.

“DEA must adopt a framework in which it purchases and takes possession of the entire marijuana crop of each licensee after the crop is harvested. In addition, DEA must generally monopolize the import, export, wholesale trade, and stock maintenance of lawfully grown marijuana.”

However, the US isn’t alone in flouting the international treaty. The Department of Justice also found Australia, Canada, Israel, and the United Kingdom in breach of the Single Convention, as they all operate similar cultivation licensing practices to the US.

Some crucial context

The release of the memo adds some vital context to the DEA’s recent decisions on cannabis cultivation.

In an announcement in March this year, the administration issued a set of new proposals that, if approved, would give the DEA the exclusive right of importing, exporting, and wholesale trading stocks of all cannabis types other than medicinal preparations.

The proposals, which are open for public comment until May 22, would also require all cultivators to deliver their crops to the DEA within four months of the harvest – a clause that perfectly matches one of the obligations listed in the June 2018 memo.  

The March announcement also made clear that the DEA was still reviewing the many applications it has received from facilities wishing to cultivate cannabis for research purposes. Currently, only one facility, a research department at the University of Mississippi, is authorized by the DEA to produce cannabis material for scientific research.

But this University of Mississippi research facility – known as the National Center – is also implicated in the violations listed by the Department of Justice, which may explain the DEA’s sudden action on cultivation applications.

“NIDA contracts with, and partially oversees, the cultivation of marijuana by the National Center, which is licensed by DEA,” the memo reads.

“But under that contractual arrangement, neither NIDA nor DEA takes physical possession of the marijuana. Rather, the National Center itself stores the marijuana on the premises of the University of Mississippi and ships it to researchers approved by DEA. Neither NIDA nor DEA accepts delivery of the harvested crops. That contractual arrangement does not satisfy the United States’ obligations under Article 23(d).”

As a resolution to this issue, the Department of Justice recommended that the DEA could theoretically, “station one or more employees at the National Center after cultivation as a way of ensuring physical possession of the marijuana and exclusive control over its distribution.”

Getting the memo

This information has only come to light thanks to a lawsuit from the Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI), one of more than 30 applicants for a cannabis cultivation license. Filed in March of this year, the SRI’s lawsuit requested “secret” documents that it alleged the DEA used to delay action on expanding cannabis research.

On April 28, the two parties reportedly reached a settlement in the case. And on April 29, the DEA released the Department of Justice’s memo, as part of the agreement.

The SRI filed a separate lawsuit to the DEA in 2019. Its grievance concerned the cannabis produced by the National Center, which the institute’s researchers claimed was of poor quality and unsuitable for research.

“It arrived in powdered form, tainted with extraneous material like sticks and seeds, and many samples were moldy,” the lawsuit read.

“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.”

In its March announcement, the DEA said it was advancing cultivation applications in order to improve the quantity, quality, and accessibility of cannabis for scientific researchers.

“DEA is making progress to register additional marijuana growers for federally authorized research, and will continue to work with other relevant federal agencies to expedite the necessary next steps,” the DEA’s acting administrator, Uttam Dhillon, said in a statement.


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