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Marijuana Legalization Opponents Admit Federal Law Is Blocking Research

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Legalization advocates aren’t the only ones who recognize that marijuana’s current restrictive federal classification inhibits research. Recently, a group involving several of the nation’s leading prohibition supporters raised this issue with Congress.

Friends of the National Institute On Drug Abuse (FNIDA) submitted recommended language on the issue to a Senate committee, voicing concern that the the status of cannabis and other drugs as a Schedule I controlled substances is preventing scientists from conducting valuable research.

It also contained text calling NIDA, a federal agency, to issue a report on research barriers related to marijuana’s scheduling status.

FNIDA describes itself in a newly published Senate document as “a coalition of over 150 scientific and professional societies, patient groups, and other organizations committed to preventing and treating substance use disorders as well as understanding their causes through the research agenda of NIDA.”

The group aimed to have the language adopted into a fiscal year 2019 spending report for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies. It’s not clear when FNIDA submitted the statement, but theirs and other recommendations were released by the Government Publishing Office earlier this month.

Here’s what FNIDA urged the committee to adopt: 

Barriers to Research—The Committee is concerned that restrictions associated with Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substance Act [CSA] effectively limit the amount and type of research that can be conducted on certain Schedule 1 drugs, especially marijuana or its component chemicals and certain synthetic drugs. At a time when we need as much information as possible about these drugs, we should be lowering regulatory and other barriers to conducting this research. The Committee directs NIDA to provide a short report on the barriers to research that result from the classification of drugs and compounds as Schedule 1 substances.”

Similar language made it into an Appropriations Committee report that was approved in September.

Notably, several members of FNIDA have publicly contradicted the submission, arguing that rescheduling isn’t necessary to support research efforts. That includes Kevin Sabet, president of the prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), who serves on the group’s Board of Scientific Advisors, according to a 2019 FNIDA letter that expressed support for a congressional cannabis research bill that seeks to amend the CSA.

Sabet’s group said in 2015 that rescheduling would not “solve the problem of the need for more research, and instead would likely encourage illegal operators to continue to manufacture inferior products.”

In a Huffington Post piece, he wrote that discussion about reclassifying marijuana is “distracting and essentially meaningless” and doing so would “mainly serve as a symbolic victory for marijuana advocates.”

In a 2013 law review article, Sabet argued that “it is not necessary for marijuana to be rescheduled in order for legitimate research to proceed. Schedule I status does not prevent a product from being tested and researched for potential medical use” (though he did acknowledge that “additional Schedule I restrictions can delay a research program”).

The FNIDA letterhead also lists vocal legalization opponents such as former White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey, former NIDA Director Robert DuPont and former Office of National Drug Control Policy Deputy Director Bertha Madras as scientific advisors.

As drug czar, McCaffrey argued that marijuana “can’t be moved to Schedule two.”

Madras has applauded the Drug Enforcement Administration for denying a rescheduling petition, calling it “a victory for science that, to me, is very comforting.” She also said that moving marijuana to Schedule II would be “conceivably unethical.”

Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), a cofounder of SAM, also sits on FNIDA’s Board of Scientific Advisors, and representatives of the Partnership for a Drug-free America, Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America and the American Society of Addiction Medicine are members of the group’s executive committee.

Kennedy and DuPont joined Sabet in signing a 2014 SAM letter asking the Obama administration not to reschedule marijuana, claiming that a change in status would be “scientifically dubious” and “is not necessary to facilitate research.”

Despite the vocal anti-rescheduling advocacy of several of its members, this is at least the third year in a row that FNIDA has implored Congress to integrate its recommended language on marijuana research into spending reports, and each year, similar text has appeared.

NIDA Director Nora Volkow acknowledged in April that “the moment that a drug gets a Schedule I, which is done in order to protect the public so that they don’t get exposed to it, it makes research much harder.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat said earlier this month that while her agency provides testing guidance to state health departments, cannabis’s federal scheduling status has presented “some challenges” and delays in efforts to effectively test vaping products that contain THC amid an outbreak of severe lung injuries.

SAM and FNIDA did not respond to Marijuana Moment’s requests for comment for this story.

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

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Trinidad And Tobago Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

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A bill to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession in Trinidad and Tobago was approved by the nation’s House of Representatives on Wednesday.

The recently introduced legislation would remove criminal penalties for possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis. A fixed fine would be imposed for possession of more than 30 but fewer than 60 grams, and it would not impact an individual’s criminal record if the debt is paid.

The proposal would also provide a pathway for expungements of prior cannabis convictions and allow individuals to cultivate up to four plants for personal use. An earlier version specified that they must be male plants, which do not produce flower, but that was amended after lawmakers received public input.

Representatives spent about eight hours debating the bill, and its approval comes after a series of amendments were made in committee. It’s expected to get a vote in the Senate later this month.

There are some provisions that don’t sit well with reform advocates. Specifically, the measure imposes new penalties against possession and distribution of other substances such as LSD, MDMA and ketamine.

The decriminalization bill is one part of a package of marijuana reform proposals that the government brought before Parliament last month. Another piece of legislation, the Cannabis Control Bill, would legalize cannabis for medical, research and religious purposes and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.

That proposal was also discussed during the House session on Wednesday and has been referred to a Joint Select Committee, which is tasked with delivering a report on the bill by February 29, 2020, local journalist Clydeen McDonald reported.

Prime Minister Keith Rowley and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi have advocated for the policy changes, arguing that legalization and decriminalization will free up law enforcement resources, promote research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis and address racial justice.

“The history of cannabis is rooted in our country and, in fact, in our culture,” Al-Rawi said in his opening remarks. “Cannabis certainly be traced to several ethnic, religious and cultural traditions relevant to Trinidad and Tobago.”

“There are some who say legalize, there are some who say decriminalize, there are some who say do nothing at all, enhance the functions and penalties,” he concluded. “This is not an easy balance to be had, but commonsense tells us that it is by far past the time to make sure that the criminal justice system and the people most at risk are not exposed to the inevitability of just being processed through, after a whole lot of time, exposed to danger for a mere fine.”

The prime minister acknowledged that there’s ongoing debate about the extent to which the country should pursue reform and said “this matter is not a simple matter, but it also not a matter that we need to be frightened of.”

“We’re not going to please everybody by doing this,” he said. “There’s a body of opinion that says it shouldn’t be done at all, people should have to behave themselves. If we don’t do it, it is already an integral part of our societal behavior.”

“There are those who say we shouldn’t do it all, there are those who say we haven’t done enough, we should just legalize it and let the bush grow freely. That is not the position of the majority. The majority view in this country is we should decriminalize but we should not legalize. That may change in the future, I don’t know, but at this time, we decriminalize.”

The vote to advance these bills comes one year after the heads of 19 Caribbean nations announced they would be reviewing marijuana reform proposals. Since then, several regional countries such as St. Kitts have moved to change their country’s cannabis laws.

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New Jersey Lawmakers Take First Steps To Put Marijuana Legalization On The 2020 Ballot

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New Jersey Assembly and Senate committees held hearings on Thursday to discuss a resolution that would put the question of marijuana legalization before voters on the 2020 ballot.

The Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee debated the legislation at a morning hearing, which featured testimony from advocates, stakeholders and opponents, while a companion proposal was later discussed before the Senate Commerce Committee.

Both versions of the resolution have been scheduled for floor action in their respective chambers on Monday.

Separately, legislators in the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved a bill to revise and streamline the expungement process. It has also been listed for floor consideration on Monday.

The proposal to hold a cannabis referendum next November comes after top lawmakers failed to rally enough support to get legalization done legislatively, despite Gov. Phil Murphy (D) actively engaging in negotiations with the Senate and Assembly leaders. One of the main contentions was over how to tax marijuana sales.

“We had hoped to get this done legislatively, but that proved to be too tall of an order,” Assembly Judiciary Chairwoman Annette Quijano (D) said at the start of the Oversight panel hearing. “This is a seismic shift. I do not take that lightly.”

After Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) announced that lawmakers would be approaching legalization through a voter referendum, Murphy said that while he was disappointed, he felt confident New Jersey residents would do what the legislature was unable to accomplish.

In the meantime, the governor said he would work with both chambers to quickly pass more limited legislation decriminalizing cannabis possession.

“We believe prohibition has been a spectacular failure,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project told lawmakers on Thursday, adding that regulated markets mitigate public safety and workplace risks that exist under prohibition.

Representatives from ACLU New Jersey, New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and Clergy for a New Drug Policy also testified in favor of the measure.

Marijuana reform activist Chris Goldstein argued in his testimony that the language of the proposed ballot question should be revised to emphasize that it would end prohibition and remove criminal penalties associated with cannabis.

In order to put changes to the state’s constitution on the ballot, as would be the case with the legalization referendum, the legislature must approve the proposal with a simple majority in two consecutive years, or once with a three-fifths supermajority.

As NJBiz reported, however, it’s unclear whether the two-year rule means it must be approved in two consecutive calendar years or two legislative sessions. The former would give lawmakers until the end of December to pass it the first time and the latter would give them until Murphy’s State of the State address on January 14, 2020.

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Senators Demand Update From DEA On Marijuana Growing Applications

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A group of senators are pressing top federal drug and health agencies to provide an update on the status of efforts to increase the number of authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.

A letter from the lawmakers—led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and addressed to the heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Office of National Drug Control Policy and Department of Health and Human Services—emphasizes the need to expand the supply of research-grade cannabis as more states opt to legalize the plant for medical or recreational use.

It notes that DEA announced more than three years ago that it would begin to approve additional marijuana growers and has since continually delayed that process. While the agency said in August that it is taking steps to make approvals, it argued that the volume of applications received requires it to develop alternative rules before issuing any new licenses.

It made that announcement just before a court deadline mandated that DEA take action in response to a lawsuit brought against it by researchers who had applied for approval to produce cannabis for studies. Because the agency gave the update, however, the suit was dismissed in October.

But the senators aren’t satisfied and wrote that they’re “requesting written guidance on how the DEA will make these licenses available to qualified researchers in a timely manner.”

“While millions of Americans are now lawfully able to use marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes, there remains limited research on its therapeutic benefits,” the letter, sent on Wednesday, states. “With an ever-growing number of Americans consulting their doctors about marijuana treatment options for conditions such as chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and terminal illnesses, it is imperative that your agencies make a concerted effort to improve our understanding of cannabis, its potential health benefits, and its health risks.”

The senators also noted that the fact that cannabis remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act “is, in itself, a significant barrier to conducting research.”

“Hampering these research opportunities and discouraging qualified, independent researchers attempting to conduct studies on the benefits of medical marijuana is detrimental to states that wish to thoughtfully implement their own marijuana laws,” they argued. “This research is crucial to developing a thorough understanding of medical marijuana and would be invaluable to doctors, patients, and lawmakers across the nation.”

The letter lists five questions that the agencies are being asked to respond to by January 10.

The group wants the government to provide 1) the status and timeline of application approvals by DEA, 2) details on the existing supply of research-grade cannabis and whether additional varieties are being cultivated, 3) information on any plans to consider rescheduling marijuana, 4) a description of the application process and 5) particulars on any efforts to support research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis, particularly as an alternative to opioid painkillers.

“With millions of American adults having access to recreational marijuana and a growing number seeking the drug for medicinal purposes, the federal government is not providing the necessary leadership and tools in this developing field,” they wrote. “Evidence-based public policy is crucial to ensuring our marijuana laws best serve patients and health care providers.”

“Federal agencies have a unique opportunity to collaborate with one another to expand our nation’s understanding of marijuana’s potential to create safe and effective therapies,” they said.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) also signed the letter.

Last week, DEA received a separate letter from a bipartisan coalition of House and Senate lawmakers urging them to change policy so that researchers can obtain marijuana from state-legal dispensaries. This would help resolve one problem that scientists have identified in the past, expressing frustration over a lack of diversity in the federal government’s cannabis supply.

One study found that the government’s marijuana is chemically more similar to hemp than what’s available in commercial markets.

DEA will likely find is useful to expand the number of cannabis manufacturers given the quota it released on how much marijuana it plans approve for cultivation in 2020: 3.2 million grams, which represents a 30 percent increase from this year’s quota.

Read the senators’ full marijuana letter below:

Senators Press Feds On Mari… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

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