The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced on Friday that it will be taking significant steps to expand marijuana research.
The agency is proposing a rule change that would enable it to approve additional cannabis growers and diversify the types of marijuana available to be used in studies. The move comes more than three years after the agency initially said it was accepting applications for additional marijuana manufacturers.
DEA stressed throughout the new notice that it will have sole ownership over any marijuana that’s cultivated for research purposes. That includes any cannabis that’s stored at cultivation facilities. This appears to be a fundamental change in policy. As it stands, a single facility in Mississippi is authorized to grow cannabis through a contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and DEA does not maintain ownership over its products.
“The Drug Enforcement Administration continues to support additional research into marijuana and its components, and we believe registering more growers will advance the scientific and medical research already being conducted,” Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon said in a press release. “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.”
A 60-day public comment period will be open for individuals to provide feedback on the proposal, which will be formally published in the Federal Register on Monday.
After DEA said in 2016 that it would allow more cannabis cultivators, 37 institutions submitted applications. Many applicants grew frustrated with inaction on their proposals, and one filed a lawsuit alleging that the agency was deliberately avoiding making good on its pledge. The plaintiff won a procedural victory in that case, with the court mandating that DEA take action.
However, because the agency did provide an update on the status of its process, the suit was dismissed last year. DEA argued that the high volume of applicants to manufacture cannabis, as well as what it saw as complications arising from international drug treaties to which the U.S. is a party, meant that it would have to develop new regulations to approve them.
“This is an important step and a byproduct of the legal action we filed last summer,” Sue Sisley, a researcher with the institution that filed the suit, told Marijuauna Moment. “The agency indicated it would propose new rules to govern approving new applicants to manufacture marijuana for research, and these appear to be those rules.”
Lawmakers have repeatedly pressured the agency to expedite the process of allowing more cannabis to be grown for studies. Last year, thirty bipartisan members of the House and Senate sent a letter to the Justice Department, urging officials to approve additional applications.
Attorney General William Barr has said he favors expanding research opportunities and testified at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing last year that it’s something he’s “ been pushing very hard over the last few weeks.” He also said at that meeting that he’d prefer some level of federal regulations over cannabis as opposed to maintaining the status quo of prohibition.
His interim predecessor, Matthew Whitaker, had previously told Congress that international treaty obligations were complicating efforts to authorize more marijuana manufacturers—a point that’s was disputed by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement in a 2016 letter to senators.
President Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had reportedly interfered in the process during his time in office. The anti-cannabis official also rescinded Obama era guidance laying out enforcement guidances on marijuana for federal prosecutors.
With respect to international treaty obligations, DEA said there are five requirements that countries allowing marijuana cultivation for research must adhere to in order to maintain compliance with United Nations rules. The agency already follows three of the five, but the “proposed rule would amend DEA’s regulations so that DEA directly carries out these remaining two functions.”
Those functions are: 1) requiring cultivators to deliver their cannabis directly to a government agency in a timely manner, but no longer than four months after harvest, and 2) ensuring that the agency holds the “exclusive right of importing, exporting, wholesale trading, and maintaining stocks of cannabis and cannabis resin,” except as it concerns medical marijuana preparations.
“DEA may accept delivery and maintain possession of such crops at the registered location of the registered manufacturer authorized to cultivate cannabis consistent with the maintenance of effective controls against diversion,” the notice states. “In such cases, DEA shall designate a secure storage mechanism at the registered location in which DEA may maintain possession of the cannabis, and DEA will control access to the stored cannabis.”
Further, the agency said it will control “importing, exporting, wholesale trading, and maintaining stocks,” and it may “exercise its exclusive right by authorizing the performance of such activities by appropriately registered persons.” It will also require written notice from cultivators about their estimated harvest date. That notice should be submitted at least 15 days prior to harvest.
“It should be noted that the timing of when DEA would take physical possession of the crops, if delayed, would not only increase the risk of diversion, but would also adversely impact the quality of the crop,” DEA said.
“If this proposed rule is promulgated, the following key changes are anticipated: more persons will be authorized to grow marihuana, DEA will purchase and take title to the crops of marihuana, and DEA will, with respect to marihuana, have the exclusive right of importing, exporting, wholesale trading, and maintaining stocks,” the notice states. “These changes would mean that authorized purchasers of bulk marihuana to be used for research, product development, and other purposes permitted by the CSA may only purchase from DEA, except that DEA’s exclusive rights would not extend to medicinal cannabis or cannabis preparations.”
DEA said this notice, which also lays out criteria for eligible cultivation applicants, “is the latest and most significant action taken to expand the number of registered marijuana growers in the United States and underscores the federal government’s support for scientific and medical research with marijuana and its chemical constituents.”
Corey Cox, a senior associate at Vicente Sederberg LLP, told Marijuana Moment that DEA’s application approval process has been “very slow” so far, but that the new filing is a positive sign.
“Given this history, even if the rules leave significant room for improvement, their publication in the Federal Register represents meaningful movement beyond the stalling tactics DEA has employed to date,” he said.
The agency said the proposed rule would increase the diversity of cannabis grown for research purposes—including products of varying quality and potency—which could produce “more effective research” and facilitate possible development of Food and Drug Administration-approved medicines.
There’s been widespread criticism over the quality of cannabis produced at the only federally authorized cultivation facility at the University of Mississippi. Studies have indicated that the institute’s products are chemically more similar to hemp than marijuana available in state-legal markets, raising questions about the applicability of studies that have relied on the government’s cannabis on real consumers.
The head of the federal cultivation facility said last year that he couldn’t understand demand for marijuana with higher THC concentrations, arguing that even eight percent THC (significantly lower that most products in commercial markets) is “extremely” potent.
Unlike the current system, DEA would have a much more hands-on role under the proposed rule.
For example, “DEA would travel to the National Center at the time of harvest and take title and possession to the crop.” After that point, the material would be maintained, under seal, in DEA’s possession in the National Center’s schedule I vault until such time that a distribution to another DEA registrant is authorized.”
It remains unclear how many cultivator applications will be approved. An economic analysis the agency will conduct will consider two hypothetical scenarios. Under the first, DEA would consider the impact of approving three additional growers. Under the second, it would look at the effects of approving 15 more. However, the agency said that “this range of potential registrants is not necessarily reflective of the actual number of applications that DEA will grant.”
The agency also described how it will judge various manufacturer applications, explaining that it would consider their “ability to consistently produce and supply marihuana of a high quality and defined chemical composition” and also look into whether “the applicant has demonstrated prior compliance with the CSA and DEA regulations.”
That second criterion could pose problems for several companies that have filed applications—such as Columbia Care and The Giving Tree Wellness Center—which operate cannabis dispensaries in defiance of federal marijuana prohibition.
Individuals with prior cannabis convictions may also be adversely impacted in the application process, as the proposed rule states that the agency will take into account violations of federal or state law “relating to the manufacture, distribution, or dispensing of such substances.”
Another provision of the rule concerns pricing for cannabis sold or purchased by DEA for research purposes. The agency said it will negotiate a fee based on “market forces” and also potentially add an administrative cost “to add onto the sales price of the marihuana it sells to end users.”
“DEA believes that economic forces will not only drive the types, varieties and strains of marihuana materials that will be produced by growers, but that such forces will also drive the fees that DEA-registrants will be willing to pay for marihuana used for research purposes,” it states.
The agency also said it anticipates “minimal procedural change for authorized researchers who plan to acquire bulk marihuana for research” as compared to current policy and that the “only anticipated procedural change is that some researchers would acquire the bulk marihuana from DEA, rather than from NIDA.”
This story has been updated to include additional information about the proposed rule change.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Vice President Pence Slams Marijuana Banking Provisions In Democrats’ COVID Bill
Vice President Mike Pence on Monday criticized the inclusion of marijuana banking language in the latest House-passed coronavirus relief bill.
During an interview with Fox Business’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” the vice president discussed GOP priorities for future COVID-19 legislation and said they were at odds with those of Democrats.
“In the House of Representatives, I heard the other day that the bill that they passed actually mentions marijuana more than it mentions jobs,” Pence, who consistently voted against cannabis amendments when he served in Congress, said. “The American people don’t want some pork barrel bill coming out of the Congress when we’ve got real needs from working families.”
This is one of the more high-profile examples of Republicans condemning the cannabis provisions, but it’s far from the only one. Just last week, Pence’s chief of staff, who previously served as director of legislative affairs for the White House, made similar remarks.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been one of the most vocal critics, though he’s largely focused on specific industry diversity reporting requirements of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act that were included in the COVID legislation along with the basic financial services provisions of the bill.
The SAFE Banking Act, which previously passed the House as a standalone bill, is primarily meant to protect financial institutions that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
The prospects of getting the House version to the president’s desk seem dim, as negotiations between Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have stalled.
President Trump, meanwhile, has decided he’s not waiting for lawmakers to reach a deal and issued an executive order over the weekend that calls for new unemployment benefits, student loan payment deferrals and more.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) said on Sunday that Democrats are “ready to meet the White House and Republicans halfway.” What remains to be seen, however, is whether “halfway” would involve cannabis banking protections.
Democrats have made the case that granting cannabis businesses access to the banking system would mitigate the spread of the virus by allowing customers to use electronic payments rather than exchange cash. They also say it could provide an infusion of dollars into the financial system that’s especially needed amid the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) told Marijuana Moment in an interview last week that she agrees with her colleagues that the marijuana banking provision is relevant to COVID-19 bill.
“By continuing to disallow anyone associated with these industries that states have deemed legal is further perpetuating serious problems and uncertainty during a time when, frankly, we need as much certainty as we can get,” she said.
While the Senate did not include the banking language as part of their COVID-19 bill, there’s still the House-passed standalone legislation that could be acted upon.
The SAFE Banking Act has been sitting in the Senate Banking Committee for months as lawmakers negotiate over the finer points of the proposal.
Last month, a bipartisan coalition of state treasurers sent a letter to congressional leaders, asking that they include marijuana banking protections in the next piece of coronavirus relief legislation.
In May, a bipartisan coalition of 34 state attorneys general similarly wrote to Congress to urge the passage of COVD-19 legislation containing cannabis banking provisions.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gage Skidmore.
Arizona Marijuana Legalization Initiative Officially Qualifies For November Ballot
A measure to legalize marijuana in Arizona officially qualified for the November ballot on Monday.
The secretary of state announced that activists turned in enough valid petitions to make the cut one month after about 420,000 raw signatures were submitted.
Under the measure, adults could possess up to an ounce of marijuana at a time and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.
The initiative also contains several restorative justice provisions such as allowing individuals with prior marijuana convictions to petition the courts for expungements and establishing a social equity ownership program
Cannabis sales would be taxed at 16 percent. Tax revenue would cover implementation costs and then would be divided among funds for community colleges, infrastructure, a justice reinvestment and public services such as police and firefighters.
The Department of Health Services would be responsible for regulating the program and issuing cannabis business licenses. It would also be tasked with deciding on whether to expand the program to allow for delivery services.
Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said that her office verified petitions submitted by the Smart and Safe Arizona campaign and determined that they turned in approximately 255,080 valid signatures. At least 237,645 were needed to qualify.
The measure will be designated on the ballot as Prop. 207.
The Secretary of State's Office has certified the signatures submitted by the Smart and Safe Arizona initiative. After review, the petition exceeded the minimum requirement with approximately 255,080 valid signatures and will be placed on the General Election ballot as Prop. 207. pic.twitter.com/E6nM4vkLgf
— Secretary Katie Hobbs (@SecretaryHobbs) August 11, 2020
It’s been a long road to the ballot for activists, who at one point asked the state Supreme Court to allow them to collect signatures electronically amid the coronavirus pandemic. That request was ultimately rejected.
Prohibitionists attempted to keep the measure off the ballot by filing a suit in state court, arguing that the official summary of the initiative was misleading because it omitted certain provisions. The court disagreed and rejected the suit last week, though it’s still possible the legalization opponents will appeal.
Arizona voters narrowly rejected a marijuana legalization initiative in 2016. But in a survey of likely voters released last month, more than six-in-ten (62 percent) said they now support legalizing cannabis, while 32 percent are opposed.
Opponents of the proposal, including Gov. Doug Ducey (R), recently released official voter guide arguments against the initiative. Supporters filed arguments as well, and all will be circulated to voters in a pamphlet printed by the state.
The governor, in his submission, argued that legalization is “a bad idea based on false promises.”
Meanwhile, pro-legalization activists are asking supporters to share personal stories about why they support the cannabis ballot measure.
Share your personal story or reason for supporting Smart and Safe AZ, for the chance to be featured on our social media platforms! Submit your story on our website: https://t.co/Kbxa003kXK #SmartandSafeAZ #legalizemarijuana pic.twitter.com/EhO7jeFuPG
— Smart & Safe AZ (@SmartandSafeAZ) August 10, 2020
Here’s a status update on other 2020 drug policy reform campaigns across the country:
The Washington, D.C. Board of Elections certified last week that activists submitted enough valid signatures to place a measure to decriminalize plant- and fungi-based psychedelics in the nation’s capital.
Oregon’s secretary of state confirmed last month that separate measures to legalize psilocybin therapy and decriminalize possession of all drugs while expanding treatment services will appear on the November ballot.
Montana activists said last month that county officials have already certified that they collected enough signatures to place two marijuana legalization measure on the state ballot, though the secretary of state’s office has yet to make that official.
Organizers in Nebraska last month submitted 182,000 signatures in an attempt to put a medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot.
Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative were hoping to get a second wind after a federal judge said recently that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the other group last week, hopes are dashed.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, separate measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.
The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.
And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.
A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.
North Dakota marijuana legalization activists are shifting focus and will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.
Washington State activists had planned to pursue a drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced last month that they will be targeting the legislature instead.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Federal Drug Decriminalization Model Unveiled By Top Reform Group
A leading drug policy reform group recently unveiled a framework to federally decriminalize all illicit drugs that they hope will be embraced by Congress.
The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) said ending the drug war will help address racial disparities in the criminal justice system and promote public health. The proposal is being rolled out ahead of the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act, the legislative basis of today’s federal drug criminalization.
Full bill text of the proposed “Drug Policy Reform Act” isn’t available yet, but according to a summary, it will contain provisions to end strict sentencing constructs such as mandatory minimums for drug conspiracy offenses, provide for expungements and end collateral consequences for drug convictions like the denial of public benefits and educational loans. It would also defund federal drug agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
“There are many elected officials—on and off the Hill—that speak to the sentiments of drug decriminalization, continually touting drug use should be treated as a public health issue instead of a criminal issue—most notably when it comes to marijuana,” Queen Adesuyi, policy manager at DPA’s Office of National Affairs, told Marijuana Moment.
“However, tides are shifting and this transformational political moment calls for this roadmap we have provided legislators to begin repairing the extensive devastation the failed drug war has created beyond marijuana and beyond talking points,” she said. “There are congressional offices and allies who are, in fact, ready to see the end of criminalizing people for drug use actualized; we’re looking forward to working with them to lay the groundwork for this much needed reform in Congress.”
Criminal penalties for simple possession would be removed on the federal level. While Congress can’t change state laws under which a majority of people punished for drug offenses are prosecuted, the proposal states that federal dollars would no longer go to states for drug enforcement purposes. Also, military equipment would not be allowed to be transferred to local or state law enforcement departments for drug enforcement, no-knock warrants and surveillance technologies for drug offenses would be prohibited and employment discrimination based on criminal conviction disclosures would also be banned.
Under the proposed legislation, drug scheduling classification responsibilities would be shifted from DEA to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
NIH would also led a rulemaking task force to create a definition for “personal use quantities” and establish a process for “facilitating voluntary access to services for those seeking addiction treatment,” according to the summary.
The legislation would also promote investments in harm reduction programs to treat substance misuse.
“Removing criminal penalties for drugs is a first step in repairing the harms of the drug war,” Theshia Naidoo, managing director of criminal justice law and policy at DPA, said in a press release.
“In 2018 alone, over 1.6 million people were arrested on drug charges, over 86 percent of which were just for possession. These arrests can have impacts that last for a lifetime, often preventing access to employment, housing, financial aid for college, and even jeopardizing parental rights or immigration status,” she said. “And as we all know too well, these laws are far from equal. They are disproportionately enforced on Black, Latinx & Indigenous people, resulting in generational trauma, vilification and economic hardship on entire communities.”
At the state level, voters in Oregon could make the state the first in the nation to decriminalize possession of all drugs after an initiative to enact that policy change officially qualified for the ballot last month.
Insiders at the Vermont Democratic Party are also circulating a draft platform that proposes adding an end criminalization for drugs as a 2020 plank.
While neither President Trump or presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has backed broad drug decriminalization, presidential nominees for the Libertarian and Green Parties have both voiced support for the policy change.
Read DPA’s summary of its proposed drug decriminalization legislation below: