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Congress Votes To Let Researchers Study Marijuana From Dispensaries

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The House of Representatives approved legislation on Wednesday aimed at finally letting researchers study marijuana purchased from businesses in state-legal markets instead of only letting them use government-grown cannabis, as is the case under current law.

The intent of the provision, tucked into a 2,000-plus-page infrastructure bill, is to allow the interstate distribution of such products even to scientists in jurisdictions that have not yet legalized marijuana.

While the main components of the INVEST in America Act concern funding for highway and transportation projects, the legislation as introduced 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.

Several lawmakers filed additional cannabis-related amendments in committee. Most were either withdrawn, defeated or never formally debated, but a wide-ranging marijuana measure that was recently filed by the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was successfully attached.

The provision calls for the Department of Transportation to consult with the attorney general and Department of Health and Human Services to develop a report with recommendations on providing researchers with access to “samples and strains of marijuana and products containing marijuana lawfully being offered to patients or consumers” in legal states.

The report should also explore “establishing a national clearinghouse to collect and distribute samples and strains of marijuana for scientific research,” and that would include cannabis from state-legal markets. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), sponsor of the main bill as well as the manager’s amendment the new marijuana language is part of, further wants the report to outline ways to provide researchers in states that haven’t legalized marijuana with access to cannabis from such a clearinghouse to study impaired driving.

Finally, the measure states that the report, which would be due two years after the bill’s enactment, should analyze “statutory and regulatory barriers to the conduct of scientific research and the establishment of a national clearinghouse for purposes of facilitating research on marijuana-impaired driving.”

Some of these components deal directly with transportation, but others seem to address broader issues in cannabis research that advocates and scientists have repeatedly identified as problematic. As it stands, researchers can only access marijuana from a single federally authorized manufacturing facility, and the quality of the products it produces has been criticized. At least one study found that its marijuana is chemically closer to hemp than what’s actually available to consumers in commercial markets.

The Drug Enforcement Administration is taking steps on its own to increase the number of licensed cannabis cultivation facilities beyond the current sole source at the University of Mississippi, but the process has seen long delays. A public comment period on its most recent proposal ended in May. However, even if the federal government does license additional research cultivation facilities, that still wouldn’t resolve the problem of scientists’ lack of access to marijuana from state marketplaces.

“There is a growing awareness among the public, politicians, and especially among those within the scientific community that the current regulations unduly limiting researchers’ ability to access and clinically study real-world cannabis products is both illogical and counterproductive,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano told Marijuana Moment. “It makes zero sense that tens of millions of Americans can now readily purchase and consume these products, but that scientists cannot access these same products for the purpose of studying their effects on human subjects in the course of a controlled trial.”

The other cannabis provision that was included in the base bill has not been well-received by reform advocates.

Under the legislation, a section of current law requiring that states establish highway safety programs would be amended to add a section stipulating that states “which have legalized medicinal or recreational marijuana shall consider programs in addition to the programs…to educate drivers on the risks associated with marijuana-impaired driving and to reduce injuries and deaths resulting from individuals driving motor vehicles while impaired by marijuana.”

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 congressional research body said in a report last year that concerns expressed by lawmakers that cannabis legalization will make the roads more dangerous might not be totally founded. In fact, the experts tasked by the House and Senate with looking into the issue found that evidence about cannabis’s ability to impair driving is currently inconclusive.

Beside that contention, the legislation seems to neglect to take into account that cannabis-impaired driving isn’t exclusive to legal states and that public education could be beneficial across all states regardless of their individual marijuana policies.

Despite pushback from advocates, no lawmakers filed amendments to strike the language or revise it to apply to all states instead of just ones that have ended prohibition.

Hundreds of other amendments were filed on the legislation, both in the Transportation Committee and for potential floor action, with several others dealing with cannabis that didn’t make the cut.

That includes one calling for studies into the effects of cannabis on driving and the development of an “objective standard for measuring marijuana impairment.” Another would establish a grant program for research into marijuana-impaired driving. Both of those were withdrawn during the Transportation Committee hearing on the bill last month.

Another amendment contained a section that would require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to “carry out a collaborative research effort to study the effect that marijuana has on driving and research ways to detect and reduce incidences of driving under the influence of marijuana.” It was defeated in a 25-35 vote.

There was also an amendment filed that called for the creation of a pilot program to promote education about the risks of impaired driving from prescription and over-the-counter drugs. The sponsor never ended up formally offering it.

In the House Rules Committee, which held a hearing last week to prepare the bill for floor action, an amendment was offered to make it so the Transportation Department would “establish a program to provide grants on a competitive basis to States to educate the public on the dangers of drug-impaired driving.” The measure wasn’t made in order, however.

The panel did advance another drug-related measure that would create “a pilot program to provide funding to states to incorporate wastewater testing for drugs at municipal wastewater treatment plants and to develop public health interventions to respond to the findings.”

“This would allow public health departments to monitor drug consumption and detect new drug use more quickly and in a more specific geographic region than methods currently in use while preserving individual privacy,” the text of the measure, which was approved by a voice vote in a bloc along with other amendments on the House floor, states.

The overall infrastructure bill was approved by a vote of 233-188. It’s not clear if the Senate will include cannabis provisions in any related legislation it takes up this year.

Read the text of the manager’s amendment on expanding marijuana research and access to state-legal cannabis products below: 

SEC. 3014. REPORT ON MARIJUANA RESEARCH.

(a) IN GENERAL.—Not later than 2 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation, in consultation with the Attorney General and the Secretary of Health and Human Services, shall submit to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate, and make publicly available on the Department of Transportation website, a report and recommendations on—

(1) increasing and improving access, for scientific researchers studying impairment while driving under the influence of marijuana, to samples and strains of marijuana and products containing marijuana lawfully being offered to patients or consumers in a State on a retail basis;

(2) 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;

(3) facilitating access, for scientific researchers located in States that have not legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use, to samples and strains of marijuana and products containing marijuana from such clearinghouse for purposes of research on marijuana-impaired driving; and

(4) identifying Federal statutory and regulatory barriers to the conduct of scientific research and the establishment of a national clearinghouse for purposes of facilitating research on marijuana-impaired driving.

(b) DEFINITION OF MARIJUANA.—In this section, the term ‘‘marijuana’’ has the meaning given such term in section 4008 of the FAST Act (Public Law 114–94).

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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