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Scientists Sue DEA Over Alleged ‘Secret’ Document That Delayed Marijuana Research Expansion

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The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is finding itself in court over marijuana again after scientists filed a lawsuit against the agency, requesting “secret” documents that they allege DEA used to delay action on expanding cannabis research.

The Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) is behind the suit. It’s one of more than 30 organizations that have submitted applications to DEA to become licensed cannabis manufacturers for research purposes.

Some background should be noted: In 2016, DEA announced it would expand marijuana research by approving additional growers beyond the sole source that has existed for half a century at the University of Mississippi. But after more than three years, applicants heard silence, and SRI filed an initial lawsuit alleging that the agency was deliberately holding up the process. A court mandated that it take steps to make good on its promise, and that case was dropped after DEA provided a status update.

This month, DEA finally unveiled a revised rule change proposal that it said was necessary due to the high volume of applicants and to address potential complications related to international treaties to which the U.S. is a party. A public comment period is now open, after which point the agency says it will finally approve an unspecified number of additional growers.

But what really accounted for the delay?

According to the plaintiffs in this new suit, after DEA said it would accept more cultivators, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) secretly issued an opinion that interprets international treaty obligations as making it impossible to carry out the 2016 proposed rule while maintaining compliance.

The new revised rule aims to address the problem, in part by shifting jurisdiction over the cannabis to a single agency, DEA, which would purchase and technically own all of the cannabis grown by approved cultivators, and would then later sell the product directly to researchers.

That OLC document, which is not public, is the basis of SRI’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) complaint. The case was filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona on Wednesday and requests that the Justice Department be found guilty of unlawfully failing to make records available related to its interpretation of the Single Convention treaty, including the OLC opinion. It further states that DEA should release those documents and pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees.

Matt Zorn, an attorney working the case, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview that it’s not clear what’s contained in the OLC opinion and that the uncertainty is “entirely the point” of the suit.

“I think we all know vaguely what it says—the subject matter of it—but we don’t know what it actually says,” he said. “That’s important because you need to know what that instruction was or what their interpretation of the law is to assess whether what they’re doing now is appropriate.”

The suit claims that SRI, “as a non-commercial company dedicated to advancing the state of medical care through clinical research, is directly harmed by this unlawful secrecy.”

“Because Defendants have failed to fully disclose their re-interpretation of federal law and treaty obligations as the law requires, Plaintiff lacks information necessary to protect its legal rights, including the right to have its application to manufacture marijuana for research processed in compliance with the Administrative Procedure Act and the [Controlled Substances Act],” the filing states.

SRI’s research objective for cannabis is to determine potential therapeutic benefits for veterans suffering from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. “While DEA’s unlawful and dilatory conduct harms the public generally, the secrecy and delay have been especially harmful to our nations’ veterans,” the suit says.

“We deserve not only to know the scientific truth about medical marijuana use, but candor from our government, which includes disclosure of the ‘secret law’ the agency continues to rely on as a basis to delay and ultimately revamp the process for researching and manufacturing marijuana in this country,” the filing says. “Plaintiff brings this FOIA action so can understand the legal basis—if there is one—for the government’s conduct surrounding the Growers Program.”

While SRI acknowledged that DEA last week announced its revised rule change proposal, the suit states that the explanation about how it arrived at its determination “leaves Plaintiff and the public in the dark with respect to several critical considerations.” For example, it alleges, the notice doesn’t account for how the Justice Department advised the agency on the matter and which parts of the amended proposal would make the action compliant with international treaties.

“The answer to these questions and others presumably lies in the undisclosed OLC Opinion and related records that animated DOJ’s decision to sideline the Growers Program and prompted DEA to embark on this notice-and-comment rulemaking in the first place… In sum, using a secret OLC Opinion interpreting the CSA and a 1961 international treaty, DEA delayed processing applications to cultivate marijuana for research and now proposes to radically revamp federal law through rulemaking—rules which will loom large over the future of medical marijuana research, manufacture, and distribution going forward.”

The plaintiffs argue that DEA violated federal statute that prohibits the creation of a “secret law.” The statute says that federal agencies must make records—including final opinions and policy interpretations not published in the Federal Register—public.

“To block the Growers Program, DOJ formulated—through the OLC Opinion and related records—and DEA adopted to an undisclosed interpretation of the Single Convention and federal law contrary to the view espoused and published by DEA in the August 2016 Policy Statement, and contrary to the view of the State Department,” it continues, apparently referencing a letter the State Department sent to a senator in response to questions about the role of international treaties as it concerns expanding cannabis cultivation facilities.

In that letter, the department said nothing about the Single Convention prevents member nations from increasing the number of such facilities. “If a party to the Single Convention issued multiple licenses for the cultivation of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes, that fact alone would not be a sufficient basis to conclude that the party was acting in contravention of the Convention,” it read.

Read the State Department’s responses on international treaties and marijuana below:

State Dept Response on Single Convention by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

If the new lawsuit’s allegations prove accurate, it could help explain the role of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the anti-marijuana official who was reportedly involved in blocking research expansion.

The suit, which was first reported by Politico, goes on to say:

“For more than three years, Defendants relied on this undisclosed interpretation, contained in the OLC Opinion and related records, to make an end-run around the Administrative Procedure Act by unlawfully withholding and unreasonably delaying agency action on marijuana cultivation applications. The OLC Opinion has guided DEA’s actions—and its inaction… The government’s unlawful conduct under FOIA prevents Plaintiff and those similarly situated from timely and effectively vindicating legal rights under the Administrative Procedure Act, effectively rendering its protections and judicial review provisions meaningless.”

To resolve the issue, SRI said it wants DEA to be held accountable for violating federal law, release the documents and compensate them for the legal action. While this is a FOIA-related suit, the institute didn’t first seek the documents through a standard document request but instead filed the case under the law’s “Reading Room provision” that allows courts to force federal agencies to put records online, according to a Ninth Circuit ruling last year.

Sue Sisley, a researcher with SRI, told Marijuana Moment that the institute has generally had a good relationship with DEA over the years and doesn’t expect that it would unduly deny their application in retaliation for the institute’s repeated legal actions against the agency.

“I couldn’t fathom that that would happen, but I hope that the merits of our application are so clear that it would carry us forward,” she said. However, these licensing agreements are “not always a merit-based process so it is possible that if politics get deeply involved here that there could be a situation where licenses are awarded to friends of the government. We’re still praying that there is some merit-based system.”

Researchers and lawmakers have made clear that the current availability of federally authorized cannabis for research raises questions about the accuracy of tests that rely on it, as the quality is insufficient. As of now, there’s only one facility at the University of Mississippi that’s authorized to grow cannabis for researchers. The products developed at the university have been widely criticized by scientists and lawmakers. A study indicated that the facility’s cannabis is chemically more similar to hemp than marijuana available in state-legal markets.

“If adopted, these proposed rules would radically overhaul how medical marijuana manufacture and research will proceed in this country,” the plaintiffs wrote. “Better supply is needed for better research, and better research is needed not only because millions use medical marijuana every day, but also to facilitate informed policymaking at the federal and state levels, including legislation and drug scheduling decisions.”

Read the full lawsuit against DEA below:

SRI FOIA Complaint by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Federal Agency Touts Hemp Progress While Refusing To Serve Marijuana Businesses

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

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

Politics

Indiana GOP Lawmaker Plans Medical Marijuana Bill As Democrats Push Full Recreational Legalization

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“It polls higher than any other issue. We’ve seen 38 other states step up and do the right thing for their citizens. We know it saves lives. We know it offers a better quality of life.”

By Margaret Menge, The Center Square

Democrats in Indiana have launched a campaign to legalize marijuana in the state and appealed to business-friendly Republicans to join to help the state’s economy.

There is some support from Republicans.

“I have a medical cannabis bill ready to go,” Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, said.

He said the bill will be similar to the one he introduced in the last session of the Indiana General Assembly, which would permit the use of medical marijuana by people with “serious medical conditions” as determined by a doctor, and would permit the “cultivation, testing, processing, transportation and dispensing” of medical marijuana by people who hold a valid permit issued by the state.

It also would put the Indiana Department of Health in charge of implementing and enforcing the medical marijuana program.

Indiana is one of just a handful of states that has not legalized medical marijuana.

“It polls higher than any other issue,” Lucas said. “We’ve seen 38 other states step up and do the right thing for their citizens. We know it saves lives. We know it offers a better quality of life.”

In 2016, the national American Legion, which is based in Indianapolis, called on Congress to remove marijuana from Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act and reclassify it to “recognize cannabis as a drug with potential medical value.”

The Legion has also pushed for more research to be done on marijuana related to its potential in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular.

The Indiana American Legion, however, has not taken a position on the issue, and did not discuss the bill Lucas introduced in the last session, spokesperson Josh Marshall said.

He said the issue would have to be reviewed by the organization’s executive committee before any action were taken on the issue in the upcoming session of the legislature, which begins January 3.

Meanwhile, Indiana Democrats are pushing to get the issue on the table.

Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, is set to lead a “community talking circle” at a pizza place in Muncie today to hear from the public about legalizing medical marijuana.

“The reality is that medical cannabis is becoming an accepted and preferred method of treatment throughout the country,” Errington said in a statement from the Indiana House Democratic Caucus on November 29. “Medical cannabis is a safe, non-addictive alternative to opioids that could benefit Hoosiers who live with chronic pain and anxiety disorders, including our brave veterans who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Those who have sacrificed so much for our state deserve an effective treatment for their pain, rather than a potential criminal record.”

Republicans hold a supermajority in both houses of the legislature and hold every statewide office. But legislative leaders—some of them—have appeared more open on the issue in recent years.

In 2018, the Republican floor leader in the Indiana House of Representatives, Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, authored a resolution calling for an interim study committee to research medical marijuana.

“Hoosiers rightfully want to know what direction Indiana will take,” he said at the time. “I believe it is wise of policymakers to carefully gather public and professional input.”

Lehman told Fox59 last month that he thinks there’s “always room for discussion” about medical marijuana, but that he thought the federal government would have to act first, before Indiana takes action.

This story was first published by The Center Square.

Ohio GOP Lawmakers File New Marijuana Legalization Bill

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DEA Backs White House Plan To Streamline Research On Marijuana, Psychedelics And Other Schedule I Drugs

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The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and National Institute On Drug Abuse (NIDA) say they are in favor of a White House proposal to streamline the process of researching Schedule I drugs like marijuana and certain psychedelics.

The agencies testified at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on Thursday, expressing support for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) research plan. While the focus of the meeting was mostly on a controversial move to strictly classify fentanyl-related substances, the Biden administration proposal’s research components would also help address concerns within the scientific community about the difficulty of studying other Schedule I drugs.

DEA said in written testimony that “expanding access to Schedule I research is a critical part of DEA’s mission to protect public safety and health.”

“It is critical that the scientific and medical community study Schedule I substances, as some may turn out to have therapeutic value,” DEA Principal Deputy Administrator Louis Milione said. “DEA supports the administration’s legislative proposal’s expansion of access to Schedule I research. DEA looks forward to continuing to work with the research community and our interagency partners to facilitate Schedule I research.”

In general, what the administration is proposing is to align the research requirements for Schedule I drugs with those of less-restricted Schedule II drugs. Scientists and lawmakers have consistently pointed out that the existing rules for studying Schedule I controlled substances are excessively burdensome, limiting vital research.

Rather than having each scientist involved in a Schedule I drug study obtain DEA registration, ONDCP wants to make it so multiple researchers at a given institution would be allowed to participate under a single registration. The administration also proposed a policy change where a research institute with studies taking place over multiple locations would only require one overall registration instead of needing to have a specific one for each site.

Another change would allow certain researchers to move ahead with conducting their studies after submitting a notification to the Department of Justice instead of waiting for officials to affirmatively sign off on their proposals. ONDCP’s plan would also waive the requirement for additional inspections at research sites in some circumstances and allow researchers to manufacture small amounts of drugs without obtaining separate registrations. The latter component would not allow cultivation of marijuana, however.

“Even experienced researchers have reported that obtaining a new Schedule I registration, adding new substances to an existing registration, or getting approval for research protocol changes is time consuming,” NIDA Director Nora Volkow said in her testimony. “Unlike for Schedule II through V substances, new and amended Schedule I applications are referred by the DEA to the HHS for a review of the protocol and a determination of the qualifications and competency of the investigator.”

“Researchers have reported that sometimes these challenges impact Schedule I research and deter or prevent scientists from pursuing this critical work,” she said.

In an interview last week, Vokow said that even she—the top federal official overseeing drug research—is personally reluctant to conduct studies on Schedule I substances like marijuana because of the “cumbersome” rules that scientists face when investigating them.

When ONDCP first announced its proposed Schedule I policy changes in September, some experts tempered expectations about the practical effects of aligning Schedule I and Schedule II applications. The difference is largely a matter of extra paperwork for the more restrictive category, they contend.

Regardless, several lawmakers who attended Thursday’s subcommittee hearing expressed enthusiasm about the prospects of these policy changes.

“I’m particularly interested in eroding existing barriers of federal law that limit researchers at academic medical centers from studying Schedule I substances,” Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA) said. “So I’m grateful that our research agencies are working to find effective solutions.”

Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) also weighed in, saying that “we all agree that the current scheduling classification system has made it very difficult for scientists to research the effects of scheduled compounds, which may have medicinal properties.”

“For example, we know that compounds in marijuana have legitimate and beneficial medical uses, despite it being Schedule I,” he said. “So I’m encouraged to see that efforts are being made to allow researchers to study the effects of various compounds. In this proposal.”

ONDCP’s intent to streamline research into Schedule I drugs has been notable and seems to be part of a theme that developed within the administration.

For example, DEA has repeatedly proposed significant increases in the production of marijuana, psilocybin and other psychedelics for research purposes, with the intent of aiding in the development of new federally approved therapeutic medications.

NIDA’s Volkow told Marijuana Moment in a recent interview that she was encouraged by DEA’s prior proposed increase in drug production quota. She also said that studies demonstrating the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics could be leading more people to experiment with substances like psilocybin.

But while the production developments are promising, advocates are still frustrated that these plants and fungi remain in the strictest drug category in the first place, especially considering the existing research that shows their medical value for certain conditions.

There has been at least one recent development in the fight to modernize marijuana research. President Joe Biden signed a massive infrastructure bill last month that includes provisions aimed at allowing researchers to study the actual cannabis that consumers are purchasing from state-legal dispensaries instead of having to use only government-grown cannabis.

But that’s just one of numerous research barriers that scientists have identified. A report that NIDA recently submitted to Congress stressed that the Schedule I status of controlled substances like marijuana is preventing or discouraging research into their potential risks and benefits.

A federal appeals court recently dismissed a petition to require the DEA to reevaluate cannabis’s scheduling under the Controlled Substances Act. However, one judge did say in a concurring opinion that the agency may soon be forced to consider a policy change anyway based on a misinterpretation of the therapeutic value of marijuana.

Meanwhile, DEA has given hemp businesses that sell delta-8 THC products a boost, with representatives making comments recently signaling that, at the federal level at least, it’s not a controlled substance at this time.

Separately, the Washington State attorney general’s office and lawyers representing cancer patients recently urged a federal appeals panel to push for a DEA policy change to allow people in end-of-life care to access psilocybin under state and federal right-to-try laws.

White House Pressed To Mediate Marijuana Finger-Pointing Between DEA And HHS

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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Ohio GOP Lawmakers File New Marijuana Legalization Bill

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A pair of Ohio Republican lawmakers on Thursday filed a bill to legalize marijuana in the state. The move comes as activists are nearing completion of the first phase of their signature drive for a cannabis legalization initiative.

Reps. Jamie Callender (R) and Ron Ferguson (R) first announced their plan to push the legislative reform proposal in October and circulated a co-sponsorship memo to build support for the measure. Now they’re moving ahead with formal introduction of the “Ohio Adult Use Act.”

The bill would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to 50 grams of cannabis. They could also grow up to six plants, only three of which could be mature, for personal use.

Gifting up to 25 grams of marijuana between adult consumers without remuneration would also be permitted.

Adult-use cannabis products would be taxed at 10 percent. After covering administrative costs, tax revenue would be distributed as follows: 50 percent to the state general fund, 25 percent to combat illicit drug trafficking and 25 percent for substance misuse treatment programs.

The state Department of Commerce would be responsible for regulating the new adult-use marijuana and existing medical cannabis program and issuing business licenses through a new Division of Marijuana Control.

Regulators would be limited to approving one retail cannabis dispensary license per 60,000 residents in the state up until January 1, 2027. After that point, the department would would be required to review the program on “at least a biennial basis” to see if more licensees are needed.

The legislation does not contain specific provisions to promote social equity by expunging prior cannabis convictions or prioritizing licensing for communities most impacted under prohibition. That’s despite Callender saying in October that there would be a pathway for expungements “for folks that have prior convictions that would be not illegal after the passage of this bill.”

A spokesperson in the lawmaker’s office told Marijuana Moment that while those components weren’t included in this introduced version, “it is still the plan to add any needed language on the subject once we get it to committee.”

“Conversations on modifications are continuing but with Thanksgiving here and the end of the year approaching, we wanted to get the ball rolling with introduction,” he said.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

There is at least one equity-related provision to require regulators to conduct a study prior to issuing adult-use licenses “to determine whether there has been prior discrimination in the issuance of marijuana-related licenses in this state, including whether the effects of marijuana prohibition have contributed to a lack of participation by racial or ethnic minorities in the medical marijuana industry in this state.”

If the study does find evidence of discrimination, the department “shall take necessary and appropriate actions to address and remedy any identified discrimination when issuing licenses.”

Under the bill, employers would still be able to enforce anti-drug policies without accommodating workers who use cannabis in compliance with the state law.

The measure would also expand the amount of acreage that licensed cultivators could use to grow cannabis from what is allowed now under the medical marijuana program.

Further, the legislation includes a section that would have the state formally endorse a congressional bill to deschedule marijuana that’s sponsored by Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH).

A separate state legalization bill that was the first of its kind to be introduced in the Ohio legislature earlier this year would similarly legalize the possession, sale and cultivation of cannabis by adults. It’s being championed by Reps. Casey Weinstein (D) and Terrence Upchurch (D), and it does include expungement provisions.

A recent legislative survey found that Republican lawmakers in the state are more supportive of legalizing marijuana than their Democratic colleagues are.

But leadership in the legislature, as well as Gov. Mike DeWine (R), will likely present obstacles for any recreational legalization bill that advances.

House Speaker Robert Cupp (R) laughed when he was asked about Callender’s legislation after its initial announcement, though he added, “Let’s just see where it goes. I haven’t read it yet.”

Callender said that although Republican legislative leaders and the governor are not yet on board, “there is more bipartisan support than most people would think.”

Meanwhile, Ohio activists recently said that they would have enough signatures to force the legislature to consider legalizing marijuana by the end of November. And Weinstein said he feels the citizen-led effort could help build momentum for a legislative approach to ending prohibition.

While it’s only been a few months since Ohio officials cleared the campaign to collect signatures for its measure, Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol spokesperson Tom Haren said that the initial wave of signature gathering “will be completed probably about the end of November.” There’s yet to be an announcement as to whether they succeeded in that timeline.

The measure that legislators would then be required to consider would legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and older, and they could also have up to 15 grams of marijuana concentrates. Individuals could grow up to six plants for personal use, with a maximum 12 plants per household.

Activists must collect 132,887 valid signatures from registered voters for the statutory initiative during this first phase of the effort. If they succeed, the legislature will then have four months to adopt the measure, reject it or adopt an amended version. If lawmakers do not pass the proposal, organizers will then need to collect an additional 132,887 signatures to place the proposal before voters on the ballot in November 2022.

Further demonstrating the appetite for reform in Ohio, voters in seven cities approved ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana possession during last month’s election.

Ohio marijuana activists have also successfully proved that they turned in enough valid signatures to put a local decriminalization initiative before Kent voters after having missed the 2021 ballot due to a verification error on the part of county officials.

Separately, Ohio senators recently filed a bill to expand the state’s medical cannabis program, in party by allowing physicians to recommend marijuana if they “reasonably” believe it could benefit the patient.

Missouri GOP Lawmaker Files Joint Resolution To Put Marijuana Legalization On Ballot As Activists Launch Separate Campaign

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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