Just days after passing a far-reaching bill to federally legalize marijuana, the U.S. House of Representatives is set to vote Monday on separate legislation to remove barriers to conducting research on cannabis, including by allowing scientists to access products from state-legal dispensaries.
The Medical Marijuana Research Act, sponsored by the unlikely duo of pro-legalization Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and prohibitionist Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), would streamline the process for researchers to apply and get approved to study cannabis and set clear deadlines on federal agencies to act on their applications. It would also make it easier for scientists to modify their research protocols without having to seek federal approval.
The move to hold a House vote comes less that two weeks after the Senate unanimously passed a different cannabis research bill. Both chambers passed earlier versions of their respective legislation in late 2020, but nothing ended up getting to then-President Donald Trump’s desk by the end of the last Congress.
It remains to be seen if, following the House’s expected passage of its bill again on Monday, the two chambers will be able to negotiate a deal on provisions of unified legislation to send to President Joe Biden.
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The House is bringing the bill forward under a process known as suspension of the rules, under which no amendments are allowed and a two-thirds supermajority is needed for passage—indicating leadership believes it has the necessary bipartisan support to advance again without substantial opposition.
Unlike the House proposal, the measure the Senate passed last month would not let researchers study dispensary products, but takes other steps its sponsors say would streamline the investigatory process for scientists and encourage the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop cannabis-derived medicines.
The House bill, meanwhile, would additionally mandate that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) license more growers and make it so there would be no limit on the number of additional entities that can be registered to cultivate marijuana for research purposes. It would also require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to submit a report to Congress within five years after enactment to overview the results of federal cannabis studies and recommend whether they warrant marijuana’s rescheduling under federal law.
For half a century, researchers have only been able to study marijuana grown at a single federally approved facility at the University of Mississippi, but they have complained that it is difficult to obtain the product and that it is of low quality. Indeed, one study showed that the government cannabis is more similar to hemp than to the marijuana that consumers actually use in the real world.
DEA has taken steps in recent years to approve new cultivators of marijuana to be used in studies, but there has been bipartisan agreement the agency has inhibited cannabis research by being slow to follow through on those applications. Some of the newly approved operations are have only begun to produce their first legal cannabis crops in recent months.
Under the new House bill, the agency would be forced to start approving additional cultivation applications for study purposes within one year of the legislation’s enactment.
HHS and the attorney general would be required under the bill to create a process for marijuana manufacturers and distributors to supply researchers with cannabis from dispensaries. They would have one year after enactment to develop that procedure, and would have to start meeting to work on it within 60 days of the bill’s passage.
In general, the legislation would also establish a simplified registration process for researchers interested in studying cannabis, in part by reducing approval wait times, minimizing costly security requirements and eliminating additional layers of protocol review.
Meanwhile, large-scale infrastructure legislation that was signed by Biden in November contains provisions aimed at allowing researchers to study the actual marijuana that consumers are purchasing from state-legal businesses instead of having to use only government-grown cannabis.