A pair of senators has filed a marijuana amendment that they hope to attach to large-scale defense spending legislation—but it’s not the cannabis banking reform proposal that industry stakeholders have been waiting for. Instead, this one deals with removing barriers to research on marijuana’s effects.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) submitted an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on Monday that would streamline the application process for researchers who want to investigate cannabis as well as manufacture the plant to be used in studies.
The amendment is identical to standalone legislation that the senators filed in February, alongside Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA). The Senate unanimously approved an earlier version of that bill late last year, but it was not taken up by the House by the end of the session.
The proposal would also clarify that physicians are allowed to discuss the risks and benefits of marijuana with patients and require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to submit a report on those potential health benefits, as well one on barriers to cannabis research and how to overcome those obstacles.
Dozens of amendments have filed for NDAA so far, and industry stakeholders are eager to see if the Senate follows the lead of the House and inserts language meant to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses.
For now, the research amendment is the only cannabis-related measure that’s been submitted, but it’s not yet clear when the overall bill will come to the Senate floor. If no senator files a banking amendment, the issue’s fate will be decided by a bicameral conference committee charged with reconciling the differences between the two chambers’ versions of the bill before sending a final proposal to the president.
Senate leadership has spent a lot of time thinking about marijuana policy priorities this session, with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) saying repeatedly that they think comprehensive reform should advance before banking.
That said, Schumer did say during a recent podcast interview that he’s open to approving banking as part of the defense legislation if it contains social equity components. Booker, for his part, has been more obstinate, saying he “will lay myself down” to block any other senators who seek to pass marijuana banking legislation ahead of broad, justice-focused legalization.
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Meanwhile, Feinstein, Schatz and Grassley separately filed the research amendment as part of a massive infrastructure bill earlier this year, but it was not given consideration on the floor.
In general, the first section of the proposal concerns the application process for institutions seeking federal authorization to research marijuana. The U.S. attorney general would be given a 60-day deadline to either approve a given application or request supplemental information from the applicant. It would also create an expedited pathway for researchers who request larger quantities of Schedule I drugs.
The second major section of the amendment is about FDA approval of marijuana-derived drugs. One way to encourage such developments is through allowing “accredited medical and osteopathic schools, practitioners, research institutions, and manufacturers with a Schedule I registration” to cultivate their own cannabis for research purposes, a summary says.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) would get a mandate to approve applications to be manufacturers of marijuana-derived, FDA-approved drugs under the bill. Manufacturers would also be allowed to import cannabis materials to facilitate research into the plant’s therapeutic potential.
Finally, a fourth section would require HHS to look at the health benefits and risks of marijuana as well as policies that are inhibiting research into cannabis that’s grown in legal states and provide recommendations on overcoming those barriers.
House lawmakers, for their part, also passed legislation last year to expand cannabis research, but that bill did not advance in the Senate.
DEA has announced that it’s taking steps to approve additional manufacturers—a positive development, as far as advocates and researchers are concerned. But the existing monopoly on federally authorized cannabis continues to be a point of concern.
That’s led to calls from investigators, advocates and lawmakers to expand the number of approved manufacturer registrants. Even National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow says the policy must be changed, and she expressed support for allowing scientists to access marijuana from state-legal retailers in a recent interview with Marijuana Moment.
“Since dispensaries are selling products that are supposedly very specific for certain characteristics—there is not any one plant—without access to that variety and diversity of plant products, researchers cannot advance that question,” she said.
NIDA has also submitted a report to Congress saying that current restrictions blocking scientists from studying the actual cannabinoid products that consumers can purchase at dispensaries is impeding research to an extent that constitutes a public health concern.
Bipartisan lawmakers did recently introduce a bill to remove barriers to conducting research on cannabis, including by giving scientists access to cannabis from dispensaries. Similar legislation was passed by the House of Representatives late last year before the end of the prior Congress.
Congressional legislators are also advancing a separate strategy to open up dispensary cannabis to researchers. Large-scale infrastructure legislation that has passed both chambers in differing forms and which is pending final action 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.
The new Senate measure filed by Feinstein and Schatz includes no such provision to allow scientists to study dispensary cannabis, however.