A U.S. Senate drug caucus released a report on Wednesday that recognizes broad voter support for marijuana legalization and expresses criticism of existing policies that inhibit research into cannabis, taking direct aim at the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) role in impeding studies. But because of what they see as the risks of cannabis use, lawmakers also want the federal government to consider recommending THC caps on state-legal products.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and John Cornyn (R-TX) co-chair the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, which released the document, and neither are generally viewed as allies of the legalization movement.
The report, which was first reported by Politico, largely focuses on the need to boost research into the effects of cannabis, with members voicing concern about issues such as impaired driving, THC potency and marijuana use by vulnerable populations.
At the same time, however, it acknowledges the “increasing popularity” of legalization and outlines some of the benefits of enacting the policy change.
“Despite its increasing popularity—91 percent of Americans believe cannabis should be legalized for either medical or recreational purposes—cannabis remains illegal at the federal level,” it says. “Nonetheless, the U.S. cannabis industry is thriving. Cultivation and sales have largely shifted from Mexican cartels to U.S.-based businesses operating in licit, state markets (though a sizeable [sic] black market remains).”
“Experts estimate the licit cannabis market employs more than 200,000 individuals and will produce as much as $24 billion in profits 2025, nearly $9 billion of which will be from medical cannabis sales,” the caucus wrote.
The report discusses at length the need for further research into marijuana and points to a number of barriers—including the Drug Enforcement Administration’s position on international treaties—that have stymied studies into the plant. Members wrote that because “cannabis may hold both promise and peril” it is “imperative to increase the research base associated with cannabis, and that this research should be used to guide future policy so that appropriate regulations can be put in place to mitigate any negative public health consequences.”
DEA’s interpretation of the United Nations Single Convention and the federal Controlled Substances Act has made it so only one entity has been authorized to produce marijuana for study purposes, and that stance has “contributed to a lack of research, which hinders our understanding of the public health effects of products available for sale in state regulated markets,” the report states.
(DEA has faced widespread criticism over this issue from advocates, scientists and lawmakers, and in December, it unveiled a final rule that’s meant to allow for the expansion of cannabis producers.)
Overall, the report identifies five issues around marijuana policy and offers corresponding recommendations. It is far from universally favorable to cannabis reform—with much discussion on risks associated with impaired driving and youth consumption, for example—but it reflects how the rhetoric around marijuana is continuing to evolve in Congress, even in traditionally conservative panels like the one that produced the new document.
“Despite growing acceptance and accessibility of this drug and its derivatives, there is still much we don’t know about the effects of marijuana usage,” Cornyn said in a press release. “It’s critical for policymakers to understand the public safety implications of increased marijuana use before diving in to the complex and difficult job of changing federal policy, and it is my hope that this report will help inform these important policy decisions in the future.”
This bill that I introduced with Senators @ChuckGrassley and @SenBrianSchatz will help remove those barriers and promote more research on the health effects and potential medical benefits of marijuana and marijuana-derived products.https://t.co/HVukrHoBRD
— Senator Dianne Feinstein (@SenFeinstein) March 3, 2021
Feinstein said that she hopes the report will “speed final passage” of a marijuana research bill she introduced alongside Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) in February. She said the legislation, an earlier version of which cleared the Senate toward the end of last year but which was not merged with a separate House-passed bill in time to be enacted, would mark “an important step to ensure that Congress is well-informed about this policy area.”
Here’s a breakdown of the reports findings and recommendations:
Barriers to research—There’s currently insufficient research into cannabis—particularly as it concerns usage by adolescents, impaired driving and THC concentrations. Federal requirements to conduct studies into marijuana are excessively restrictive and do not incentivize research. To resolve the, Congress should pass the Cannabidiol and Marihuana Research Expansion Act.
THC concentrations—The levels of THC in marijuana products has gradually increased over time, raising questions about implications for public health. The National Institutes on Health should “intensify its research on the short-and long-term impacts associated with high potency cannabis and to make a recommendation, jointly with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as to whether states should cap the potency of products that may be sold.”
Marijuana impacts on pregnant women and adolescents—The caucus said more research is specifically needed as it relates to cannabis consumption by pregnant women and youth. It cited an advisory from a former surgeon general cautioning against the use of marijuana in these populations and said health officials at all levels should “amplify” that message.
CBD products and cannabis therapies—There’s “significant interest” in creating medicines derived from cannabis, and the legalization of hemp has led to a “massive proliferation” of CBD products in the marketplace. However, most are not approved by FDA for therapeutic use. The agency should “continue exercising its enforcement authorities with respect to cannabis and its derivatives” and ensure that the public is aware of which products are sanctioned for medical use and which are not.
Impaired driving—Driving under the influence of marijuana “threatens public safety.” While states have taken steps to address the issue, it remains the case that there’s not a universal tool to determine whether a person is actively impaired from THC. The caucus called for the acceleration of “research regarding the detection of cannabis impaired driving, including the development of standardized field testing,” increased funding for forensic and toxicology labs and expanded law enforcement training for so-called drug recognition experts. It also wants states and localities to “establish a uniform reporting system to collect information on cannabis-related driving incidents nationwide.”
Another notable passage from the caucus concerns eligibility requirements for those authorized to study marijuana under DEA’s new research cultivation rules. The report states that those who have operated cannabis businesses in compliance with state law have, by definition violated ongoing federal prohibition and would be deemed ineligible to conduct federally approved research into the plant according to the policy. The caucus is “concerned that the majority of pending applications will be denied, and that the available supply of legal cannabis that may be used for research will remain severely limited.”
“Cannabis-related research has largely been stymied in the United States due to overly burdensome regulations. This has inhibited our understanding of its potential medical utility as well as its public health impacts,” the report concludes. “Moving forward, it is important that Congress, federal agencies, and other policy makers consider evidence-based policies related to cannabis and its derivatives, including cannabidiol (CBD).”
“In order to better understand the health effects of cannabis and cannabis-derived products, the Caucus urges Congress to pass legislation to reduce the barriers associated with researching cannabis and CBD,” it continues. “Absent more robust research, policy makers have little information or evidence upon which to base future decisions related to cannabis.”
As Congress considers legislation to specifically address the marijuana research gap, there are plans in the work on the Senate side to introduce a bill to federally legalize cannabis—a policy change that would by its nature free up research into the plant.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are leading the charge to that end, and they’ve already met with cannabis industry and advocacy groups to inform legislation to end federal prohibition.
Last week, Schumer sent out an email blast that reiterated that legalization is a top legislative priority this session, including the policy change in what he called “Democrats’ bold agenda for change this year.”
Read the Senate caucus report on marijuana issues below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.