President Joe Biden on Monday signed a massive infrastructure bill that includes provisions aimed at allowing researchers to study the actual marijuana that consumers are purchasing from state-legal dispensaries instead of having to use only government-grown cannabis.
The legislation also encourages states that have enacted legalization laws to educate people about impaired driving.
Biden signed the large-scale measure—a legislative accomplishment being touted by Democrats after weeks of contentious debate—without specifically mentioning the marijuana provisions.
The development comes as Democratic lawmakers in Congress work to advance several pieces of cannabis legislation, including a federal legalization bill that cleared the House Judiciary Committee in September.
A new Republican-led plan to end federal cannabis prohibition was introduced in the House on Monday.
Separately, the full chamber approved a defense spending bill in September that includes protections for banks that work with state-legal cannabis businesses.
Meanwhile, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee passed a bill this month to direct the Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct a series of clinical trials on the medical benefits of marijuana for military veterans with PTSD and chronic pain.
The infrastructure measure that the president signed makes it so the transportation secretary would need to work with the attorney general and secretary of health and human services to develop a public report within two years of the bill’s enactment that includes recommendations on allowing scientists to access retail-level marijuana to study impaired driving.
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The cannabis provision stipulates that the report must contain a recommendation on establishing a national clearinghouse to “collect and distribute samples and strains of marijuana for scientific research that includes marijuana and products containing marijuana lawfully available to patients or consumers in a state on a retail basis.”
It specifies that scientists from states that have not yet enacted legalization should also also be able to access to dispensary products that are being sold in jurisdictions that have ended prohibition.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow told Marijuana Moment in a recent interview that it would be scientifically “valuable” for researchers to be able to study cannabis from state-licensed shops.
The House first passed the infrastructure bill in June with cannabis research provisions included. In August, the Senate passed its own version of the legislation, which contained substantively identical marijuana language, in August. The House then signed off on the Senate’s version, giving the measure final passage.
The bill says the cannabis research report must also broadly examine “federal statutory and regulatory barriers” to studies on marijuana-impaired driving.
The transportation legislation also contains a separate section that would require legal marijuana states—and only those states—to consider methods of educating people about and discouraging impaired driving from cannabis. Advocates take issue with that language simply because it targets legalized jurisdictions while ignoring the fact that marijuana-impaired driving takes place regardless of its legal status.
An earlier version of the transportation bill cleared the House last Congress with similar marijuana research provisions but did not advance in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Since its initial introduction last year, some steps have been taken to resolve marijuana research issues. Most notably, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently notified several companies that it is moving toward approving their applications to become federally authorized cannabis manufacturers for research purposes.
That marks a significant development—and one of the first cannabis-related moves to come out of the Biden administration. There is currently a monopoly on federal cannabis cultivation, with the University of Mississippi having operated the only approved facility for the past half-century.
But that move from DEA would still not free up researchers to access marijuana products from state-legal retailers in the way the transportation legislation would encourage if enacted.
At the same time, DEA recently proposed a massive increase in the production of marijuana and psilocybin for research purposes, with the intent of aiding in the development of new federally approved therapeutic medications.
While advocates are supportive of measures to reduce impaired driving, some have raised issues with the implication that legalizing cannabis increases the risk of people driving while under the influence. Research isn’t settled on that subject.
A federally funded study recently promoted by the National Institute of Justice also found that the amount of THC in a person’s system after consuming marijuana is not an accurate predictor of impairment.
A new Canadian study concluded that the nation’s legalization of marijuana did not lead to increased traffic injuries.
Meanwhile, broader cannabis research legislation is also pending in Congress.
Last month, a bipartisan group of House members filed a bill to remove barriers to marijuana studies. Late last year, the House approved an identical version of that cannabis science legislation. Days later, the Senate passed a similar bill but nothing ended up getting to the president’s desk by the end of the last Congress. Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of senators refiled their marijuana research measure for the current 117th Congress.
Senators are seeking to attach the text of their cannabis science bill to the National Defense Authorization Act.