There are less than two weeks left for people to submit comments on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) proposed rule change that the agency says will enable it to increase the number of authorized growers of marijuana to be used in scientific studies.
Yet despite this major development, which includes a large-scale overhaul of the federal marijuana research program that grants DEA broadly expanded powers and controls, there appears to be relatively little public interest in providing feedback on the proposal so far—at least compared to previous cannabis-related rule changes that other federal agencies have posted.
When the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) opened a comment period for proposed regulations on hemp last year, for example, more than 4,600 people replied.
But as of Wednesday, just 31 people or organizations have weighed in on the new DEA notice that stands to have a lasting impact on marijuana research in the country and represents the culmination of a years-long conflict between scientists and the agency.
Four years ago, DEA pledged to expand cannabis cultivators for studies. Dozens of research institutions submitted applications, only to hear silence. A lawsuit alleged that DEA was deliberately delaying the process, leading the agency to issue an update last year stipulating that the application procedure had to be revised.
It turns out that there was more to that story. The scientist behind that lawsuit filed another case citing the Freedom of Information Act, requesting the disclosure of a “secret” Justice Department document she claimed was used to justify inaction on the applications. As part of a settlement, the department published a 2018 Office of Legal Counsel memo this month that concluded DEA was in violation of international treaties that dictate how member nations must approach the production of controlled substances.
The office further determined that in order to be in compliance, a single agency needed to control the possession and purchasing of marijuana for research. Currently, DEA registers scientists to obtain cannabis, which is grown by a third-party farm at the University of Mississippi that is overseen by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). DEA’s proposed rules would make it the sole agency in charge of research-grade cannabis, a change it says will put it in compliance with treaty obligations.
Generally speaking, researchers applauded the moves to authorize new growers, as it signals that the University of Mississippi monopoly on marijuana for research could soon be ending. That’s especially important given concerns about the quality of cannabis grown at the facility. One study found that its plants are chemically more similar to hemp than marijuana that is available to consumers in state-legal markets.
But not everyone is pleased with the details of the proposed rule change.
With the deadline for public comments fast approaching, here’s a look at what people and organizations are telling DEA about its proposal:
One of the major voices opposing the specifics of the new rules is NORML, which argued in its formal comment that DEA does not have the track record to inspire confidence that the agency is making a good faith effort to expand cannabis research.
“While NORML has long supported facilitating and expanding domestic clinical research efforts, we do not believe that these proposed rules, if enacted, will achieve this outcome,” the group said. “Rather, we believe that the adoption of these rules may further stonewall efforts to advance our scientific understanding of cannabis by unduly expanding the DEA’s authority and control over decisions that ought to be left up to health experts and scientists.”
“NORML opposes the DEA’s proposed rules and, instead, proposes a more practical alternative to facilitate clinical cannabis research in the United States,” the comment continues. “Rather than compelling scientists to access marijuana products of questionable quality manufactured by a limited number of federally licensed producers, NORML believes that federal regulators should allow investigators to access the cannabis that is currently being produced by the multitude of state-sanctioned growers and retailers throughout the country.”
The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) said it broadly opposes DEA’s proposed regulations, contending that as a law enforcement agency, it would be inappropriate for it to govern production and research into cannabis. NCIA raised a series of concerns and said the rules should either be dramatically amended or withdrawn entirely.
Chief among its recommendations would be for a public health agency like the National Institutes of Health to be responsible for domestic cannabis production for research purposes and to make it so marijuana cultivators that have been operating in compliance with state laws be eligible for grow the plant for studies.
As it stands, DEA’s proposal stipulates that applicants can be denied if they’ve violated the federal Controlled Substances Act—something all existing state-legal marijuana cultivation businesses have technically done.
“The federal government should be incentivizing research, not discouraging it,” NCIA said, adding that it should work to “create a pathway for less restrictive means by which the country can access important information about the medicinal properties of cannabis.”
The advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA) said that while it is “in favor of expanding the production of research grade cannabis and supports research that can potentially lead to the approval by the FDA of cannabis based medicine,” the group is “skeptical of the DEA’s administration of the program and new framework design.”
ASA made several recommendations in the draft comment that has not yet been filed but was shared with Marijuana Moment, including ensuring that there is a “not-for-profit wholesaling scheme to distribute research grade cannabis” and allowing state-legal cannabis producers to participate in the program.
It also wants to remove NIDA from conducting medical cannabis research altogether due to an “unscientific agenda” it has demonstrated over its decades of controlling the process. ASA also suggested that if DEA “should fail to provide adequate licensure or unfairly distributes research grade cannabis (as they have in the past)” the agency should be stripped of its authorities and replaced with a new Office of Medical Cannabis Control.
“Increased access, exposure, and broader normalization of cannabis have deeply affected the American consciousness,” the group said. “Cannabis has become a more popularized form of medicine.”
An individual going by the name of Eric D. offered an interesting perspective in a separate comment, urging DEA to “include provisions to ensure equal opportunity to small- and mid-sized growers.”
“For example, reasonable application and processing fees, especially early in the application process, so the barriers to entry are not insurmountable for some applicants, while being insignificant for others,” the comment states. “Cannabis, unlike other medicines, can be produced by novice growers. It is of great concern that in the event that federal regulations for production become more permissive, a small group of producers will gain control of the entire market.”
Maridose, a company that said was formed because of DEA’s 2016 announcement about research expansion, said it is supportive of the proposed rule changes, though it outlined a series of questions it hoped the agency would clarify.
The company argued it would be helpful if DEA could clarify how the price of cannabis products it purchases will be determined, how it will ensure that there’s competition and availability of different marijuana varieties for researchers and what the packaging and shipping requirements will be for manufacturers.
“While remaining federal compliant and not currently involved in any Federal or State cultivation activities Maridose has developed strategic partnerships with world-renowned researchers and institutions with strong records of legal cannabis cultivation and biopharma research,” the comment states. “If granted a license by the DEA Maridose will be able to provide the highest quality standardized cannabis and cannabis extracts to meet the needs of groundbreaking lines of scientific inquiry.”
Another applicant, Biopharmaceutical Research Company, said it has also been compliant with the Controlled Substances Act by not growing cannabis to date, and argued that it has “undertaken this enterprise as a business, at great risk, because we believe in the importance of compliant and top-quality federal research.” While the company generally supports the agency’s regulations, it recommended making a change so that the current pool of applicants who have had their proposals pending for years are prioritized.
Those comments are some of the very few that have been submitted so far that are specifically responsive to the proposed rule change.
Others put their views more bluntly, calling for the end of prohibition altogether—including one from R. Michelle Anderson that quotes Nixon administration official John Ehrlichman about the racist intent behind marijuana criminalization enforcement.
“Making the rules even more complicated by adding another step just inflates the DEA coffers at the expense of the taxpayer, contributing to our bloated bureaucracy, while adding no needed benefit,” an anonymous commenter said, adding that they feel the rulemaking is the product of DEA’s “unwillingness to accept marijuana reform and impending federal legality, and therefore, are making it more difficult to study in an effort to maintain their position and status.”
North Dakota resident Blaine Hulbert said DEA has “had YEARS to get this done.”
“We would appreciate true action this time as well as DEREGULATING and FREEING of product to be housed at the facilities that are doing the research,” the comment says. “We know once it disappears into your coffers, we never hear any more about it.”
The deadline to submit comments on DEA’s proposed marijuana rule change is May 22.
Top Pennsylvania Official Restores Marijuana Flag After GOP Lawmakers Allegedly Got It Removed
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s (D) marijuana and LGBTQ flags are waving again at his Capitol office after state officials removed them Monday night, allegedly at the behest of certain GOP lawmakers who feel strongly about the activist decor.
The day after their removal, the lieutenant governor proudly announced on Twitter that he’d restored the flags—one rainbow-themed and the other displaying cannabis leaves.
“I really can’t emphasize this enough, my issue isn’t with the individuals that came to take them down. They’re kind of caught in the middle of it so it’s not them,” Fetterman told Marijuana Moment. “But the Pennsylvania GOP exerted enough pressure and made enough drama so they felt that they needed to do something and they took them down. When I realized that, I just put them back up.”
I even had to rehang this one. 🙄 pic.twitter.com/NPuADtb1Lt
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) January 26, 2021
The flags have been an unusual source of controversy for some members of the legislature. In November, Republican lawmakers passed budget legislation that included a provision targeting his cannabis-themed office decor, making it so only the American flag, the Pennsylvania flag and those honoring missing soldiers could be displayed at the Capitol building.
It’s kinda flattering that they changed Pennsylvania law just for me. 🥺👉👈
Speaking of changing laws…
I’ll take them down when we get:
LEGAL WEED 🟩 FOR PA + EQUAL PROTECTION UNDER THE LAW for LGBTQIA+ community in PA.
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) November 20, 2020
“There’s one great way to get them down for good and we can end this,” the lieutenant governor said. And that’s by enacting legislative reform.
“It shouldn’t have to be this way. These are not controversial things. These are very fundamentally American things. It’s freedom-related. It’s individuality-related. It’s jobs. It’s revenue,” he said. “These are not controversial, but these flags are. For the party that thinks it’s A-OK to talk about how an election that was secure was rigged, they sure have a real thin skin when it comes to free speech.”
A spokesperson for the state Department of General Services confirmed to Marijuana Moment that it was tasked with removing the flags and did so “in order to comply with section 1724-E of the fiscal code.” Asked whether lawmakers from the legislature’s Republican majority influenced the recent action, the representative repeated: “All I can say is the Department of General Services removed the flag in order to comply with section 1724-E of the fiscal code.”
Marijuana Moment reached out to the offices of the Senate majority leader and House speaker for comment, but representatives did not respond by the time of publication.
Defying the flag order is par for the course for Fetterman, a longtime marijuana reform advocate who is weighing a run for the U.S. Senate. His enthusiastic embrace of the issue has often put him in the spotlight, and he said he’d take that advocacy to Congress if he ultimately decides to enter the race and is elected.
“I’m the only person that’s actually called out my own party for its failure to embrace it when it is appropriate,” he said, referring to his repeated criticism of the Democratic National Committee’s rejection of a pro-legalization platform. “There has never been—or would ever be—a more committed advocate to ending this awful superstition over a plant for the United States.”
🚨🚨 PENNSYLVANIA *AND* DNC IS BEING LAPPED ON LEGAL WEED BY THE DAKOTAS NOW
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) January 26, 2021
On his campaign website, the lieutenant governor touts his role in leading a listening tour across the state to solicit public input on the policy change. He noted that, following his efforts, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) “announced his support for legalization for the first time.”
It remains to be seen when legalization will happen in Pennsylvania, however. Despite Fetterman and Wolf’s support for legalization and the pressure they’re applying on lawmakers, convincing Republican legislative leaders to go along with the plan remains a challenge.
Fetterman previously told Marijuana Moment that pursuing reform through the governor’s budget request is a possibility. But in the meantime the administration is exploring the constitutionality of issuing “wholesale pardons for certain marijuana convictions and charges.”
Since adopting a pro-legalization position in 2019, Wolf has repeatedly called on the legislature to enact the policy change. He’s stressed that stressed that marijuana reform could generate tax revenue to support the state’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and that ending criminalization is necessary for social justice.
In September, he took a dig at the Republican-controlled legislature for failing to act on reform in the previous session. And in August, he suggested that the state itself could potentially control marijuana sales rather than just license private retailers as other legalized jurisdictions have done.
Fetterman previously said that farmers in his state can grow better marijuana than people in New Jersey—where voters approved a legalization referendum in November—and that’s one reason why Pennsylvania should expeditiously reform its cannabis laws.
He also hosted a virtual forum where he got advice on how to effectively implement a cannabis system from the lieutenant governors of Illinois and Michigan, which have enacted legalization.
Shortly after the governor announced that he was embracing the policy change, a lawmaker filed a bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.
A majority of Senate Democrats sent Wolf a letter in July arguing that legislators should pursue the policy change in order to generate revenue to make up for losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo courtesy of Twitter/John Fetterman.
Hawaii Could Legalize Psychedelic Mushroom Therapy Under New Senate Bill
Hawaii could legalize the use of psychedelic mushrooms for therapy under a newly filed bill in the state legislature.
The measure, if approved, would direct the state Department of Health to “establish designated treatment centers for the therapeutic administration of psilocybin and psilocyn,” two psychoactive substances produced by certain fungi.
It would also remove the two compounds from the state’s list of Schedule I controlled substances and create a seven-person psilocybin review panel to assess the impacts of the policy change.
Few other specifics are provided in the bill, SB 738, introduced in the state Senate on Friday. It doesn’t specify who would qualify for the therapy, for example, or how precisely the drugs—which remain federally illegal—would be administered. The legislation simply says the Department of Health “shall adopt rules” in accordance with state law.
The new legislation comes less than a year after Hawaii lawmakers introduced bills to begin studying the therapeutic use of psychedelic mushrooms with the goal of eventually legalizing them, though those measures did not advance.
Entheogens—including other substances like ayahuasca and ibogaine—have emerged as a promising treatment for severe depression, anxiety and other conditions, although research remains ongoing.
In November, voters in Oregon approved a ballot measure to legalize psilocybin therapy that the state is now in the process of implementing.
The new Hawaii bill was introduced by Sens. Stanley Chang, Laura Clint Acasio, Les Ihara Jr. and Maile Shimabukuro, all Democrats. It has not yet been scheduled for a hearing, according to the state legislature’s website.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 400 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.
The Hawaii proposal is one of a growing number of broader reform bills to have been introduced across the country this year as the debate on drug policy moves beyond marijuana. A measure introduced in New York earlier this month would remove criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of any controlled substance, instead imposing a $50 fine. Similar measures are expected to be introduced in California and Washington State this year.
A Florida lawmaker recently announced plans to introduce legislation to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes in the state.
Lawmakers in New Jersey last month sent a bill to Gov. Phil Murphy (D) that would reduce criminal charges for the possession of psilocybin, but so far Murphy hasn’t signed the measure.
Voters, meanwhile, have been broadly supportive of drug reform measures in recent years. In addition to the psilocybin. measure, Oregon voters in November also approved an initiative to decriminalize possession of all drugs. Washington, D.C. voters overwhelmingly enacted a proposal to decriminalize the possession of psychedelics.
Despite the growing discussion of drug reform at statehouses across the country, some high-profile advocates are setting their sights on the 2022 election. Dr. Bronner’s CEO David Bronner, a key financial backer of successful reform efforts in Oregon, told Marijuana Moment last month that he’s expecting both Washington state and Colorado voters will see decriminalization or psilocybin therapy on their 2022 ballots.
Meanwhile, a new advocacy group is pushing Congress to allocate $100 million to support research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman
Minnesota Governor Urges Lawmakers To Pursue Marijuana Legalization Amid Budget Talks
The governor of Minnesota on Tuesday implored the legislature to look into legalizing marijuana as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice.
During a briefing focused on his budget proposal for the 2022-23 biennium, Gov. Tim Walz (D) was asked whether he is open to allowing sports betting in the state to generate tax revenue. He replied he wasn’t closing the door on that proposal, but said he is more interested in seeing lawmakers “take a look at recreational cannabis.”
Not only would tax revenue from adult-use marijuana “dwarf” those collected through sports betting, he said, but legalization would also help address “the equity issue and, quite honestly, the racial impact of our cannabis laws.”
Watch the governor discuss marijuana legalization below:
“I will say this, I will certainly leave open that possibility. Our neighboring states have done both of those things,” Walz said of legalizing sports gambling and cannabis. “I obviously recognize that that’s not a 100 percent slam dunk for people, and they realize that there’s cost associated with both. But my message would be is, I don’t think this is the time for me to say I’m shutting the door on anything.”
The Minnesota governor did say in 2019, however, that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Earlier this month, the House majority leader said he would again introduce a bill to legalize marijuana in the new session. And if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the reform, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) said this month that “Senate Republicans remain the biggest obstacle to progress on this issue.”
“Minnesota’s current cannabis laws are doing more harm than good,” she told The Center Square. “By creating a regulatory framework we can address the harms caused by cannabis and establish a more sensible set of laws to improve our health care and criminal justice systems and ensure better outcomes for communities,” she said.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), for his part, said that while he would be “open to expanding medical use or hearing criminal justice reforms,” he doesn’t “believe fully legalized marijuana is right for the state.”
“Other states that have legalized marijuana are having issues with public safety,” he argued, “and we are concerned that we haven’t fully seen how this works with employment issues, education outcomes and mental health.”
Last month, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Another factor that might add pressure on lawmakers to enact the reform is the November vote in neighboring South Dakota to legalize adult-use cannabis.
Also next door, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) is pushing lawmakers to enact marijuana reform and recently said that he is considering putting legalization in his upcoming budget request.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.