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Marijuana Rescheduling Could ‘Ease Researcher Access’ For Studies, Federal Agency Says In Overdue Report To Congress



A federal traffic safety agency has published an overdue report to Congress identifying barriers to marijuana research toward developing impaired driving detection technology—pointing out that rescheduling “may ease researcher access to products” for studies even though they will continue to be prohibited from accessing cannabis from state-licensed dispensaries.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released the report on Friday, about five months after a congressionally imposed deadline. The agency, under the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), was given the research mandate upon enactment of a broader infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law in 2022.

The legislation was also aimed at allowing researchers to study the actual marijuana that consumers are purchasing from state-legal dispensaries instead of having to use only government-grown cannabis. But while NHTSA recognized that it was required to explore that issue and make recommendations for facilitating access, the report seems to miss the mark on that point and instead talks about how the agency is “not aware of any statutory or regulatory barriers” to creating an existing federal marijuana research center that is not focused on access to dispensary products.

The law the president signed, however, directed NHTSA to issue a report that “describes methods for, and contains recommendations with respect to…establishing a national clearinghouse to collect and distribute samples and strains of marijuana for scientific research that includes marijuana and products containing marijuana lawfully available to patients or consumers in a State on a retail basis.”

In any case, the report does reinforce the idea that the Schedule I status of cannabis continues to inhibit research into the potential risks and benefits of the plant and its constituents due to onerous, multilayered administrative requirements to become registered to access marijuana.

It states that “any researcher using Federal funds, regardless of the legal status of cannabis in the State in which they operate, must be registered with DEA and their State to obtain licenses and permissions to conduct research using cannabis.”

“[T]here are extensive requirements for researchers to obtain those licenses, including having a secure facility and appropriate pharmacy and testing facilities on site,” the report says. “Rescheduling cannabis may ease researcher access to products.”

However, after outlining the complex registration steps for researching Schedule I drugs, NHTSA said “these steps are not necessarily barriers to conducting research,” and each part of the process “serves the purpose of protecting research participants and/or preventing diversion of cannabis to unauthorized individuals.”

“Some regulatory relief from these steps could be achieved if cannabis were removed from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, which is reserved for drugs that have ‘no currently accepted medical use,'” it says.

The marijuana research language that was included in the underlying infrastructure legislation was championed by Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), who also sought a status update from NHTSA and DOT a year prior to the due date.

“Today’s report is a first step towards developing a science-based standard to identify impaired driving after consuming marijuana,” Hickenlooper told Marijuana Moment on Friday. “We should take common sense steps to reduce red tape and create a reliable, evidence-based standard.”

Meanwhile, NHTSA published a separate draft report last month that said there’s “relatively little research” backing the idea that THC concentration in the blood can be used to determine impairment, calling into question laws in several states that set “per se” limits for cannabinoid metabolites.

The traffic safety agency is far from the first to recognize the challenges of researching marijuana while it remains a Schedule I controlled substance. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow has repeatedly criticized the current system and said she personally hesitates to study cannabis for that reason.

However, notably, NIDA did not explicitly deny a GOP congressman’s claims during a committee hearing on Thursday that Volkow is “adamantly opposed” to rescheduling marijuana. That said, the agency did point Marijuana Moment to her past comments to discuss the difficulties of studying Schedule I drugs.

In response to a 2022 directive from President Joe Biden, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) carried out a review into marijuana scheduling and ultimately advised the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to move it from Schedule I to Schedule III. That agency is currently finalizing its report, but the timing is unclear.

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