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Federal Health Officials Discuss Marijuana Research And Rescheduling Implications, But DEA Cancels Scheduled Appearance

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Officials from multiple federal health agencies took part in a conference this week to discuss the state of marijuana science and policy considerations for researchers navigating cannabis studies under ongoing prohibition—with a focus on the potential of cannabinoids and terpenes to treat pain.

The event, organized by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), brought together a number of agencies at a critical time, as the administration moves to reclassify cannabis under federal law. Absent from the meeting, however, was a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official who was scheduled to discuss cannabis policy and regulatory oversight issues for cannabinoid research.

Craig Hopp, deputy director of the NCCIH’s division of extramural research, called the Justice Department’s recent proposal to move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) the “obvious elephant in the room” for the federal researchers.

Asked about what the reform would mean for those interested in studying cannabis, he said “we don’t know, I guess, is the answer, right?”

While supporters and congressional researchers have repeatedly discussed how a Schedule III reclassification would free up study barriers associated with Schedule I drugs, Hopp said for now, “nothing is actually has happened” and “nothing has changed” in the early phases of the rulemaking process.

“We are still in the exact same regulatory environment today as we were when this was announced, and it will take at least a year for this to actually change,” he said at the Tuesday meeting, adding that it’s still an open question as to whether the Schedule III designation could finally allow researchers to access cannabis from state-licensed dispensaries for study purposes.

“I guess that depends on how they write the rule,” he said.

David Shurtleff, deputy director of NCCIH, said the agency remains “very hopeful that [rescheduling] will happen.”

“Anything that moves research quicker, faster, better—we’re all for, and we just hope that this will make life easier for our researchers,” he said. “We just don’t yet know what this regulation will bring in terms of ability to to bring research quicker, better, faster. But again, we’re very hopeful. But nonetheless, regardless of what the scheduling is NCCIH is still interested in studying the cannabis plant.”

Jennifer Hobin, director of the Office of Science Policy and Communications at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), also weighed in on the cannabis access issue, calling it “another challenge” that scientists continue to face restrictions on obtaining marijuana from state markets due to current federal rules.

It is “limiting our understanding of these products and their health effects,” she said, echoing points that NIDA Director Nora Volkow has made in the past.

A DEA official was scheduled to participate in a panel with other federal agencies, but the moderator said they cancelled at the last moment. However, DEA’s William Heuett did pass along a message to attendees that the agency’s “goal is to support researchers as they navigate this registration process” to study Schedule I drugs like cannabis, “and outreach is a key component of their model to provide that support,” according to the moderator.

Marijuana Moment reached out to DEA for clarity on the reason for the DEA official’s absence from the scheduled appearance, but a representative was not immediately available.

Meanwhile, Angela Arensdorf of NCCIH broadly discussed the year-over-year increase in federally funded marijuana research and said that “one thing that we are trying to do is figure out how could we work across the the NIH to continue this trajectory of the therapeutic potential research going up.”

Other federal agencies that participated in the event include the National Eye Institute (NEI), National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), National Cancer Institute (NCI), National Institute on Aging (NIA) and National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR).

Shurtleff, the NCCIH deputy director, said that “it was really heartening to see that other institutes see potential in studying cannabis for its therapeutic benefits, particularly in the minor cannabinoids.”

“It’s really nice to see all this taking place at the NIH now that we’re starting to see changes in scheduling and other aspects that may make research easier across the NIH—and finally, just to continue the effort and continue the momentum,” he said.

Late last year, NIH established its Resource Center for Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research aimed at helping scientists overcome barriers to studying cannabis under federal prohibition.

NCCIH will provide $1 million in total costs during fiscal year 2025 to fund the center, while NIDA and NIA will each contribute $100,000 in co-funding, and NCI will provide $200,000. Separately, NCI recently awarded researchers $3.2 million to study the effects of using cannabis while receiving immunotherapy for cancer treatment.

More research in recent years has also focused on cannabinoids beyond THC and CBD. For example, a literature review in the journal Molecules earlier this year focused on the “collaborative interactions” of various chemical compounds in marijuana—including cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids—arguing that a better understanding of the components’ combined effects “is crucial for unraveling cannabis’s complete therapeutic potential.”

Despite obstacles to studying controlled substances, research has ticked up amid the growing legalization movement. According to analysis by the advocacy group NORML at the end of last year, scientists have published more than 32,000 marijuana studies over the past decade, with some recent years setting records for research.

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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based managing editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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