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Congressional Hearing Exposes Marijuana Research Limitations Imposed By Federal Law

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At a congressional hearing on Wednesday, federal regulators recognized that valuable research into marijuana is being inhibited cannabis’s current legal status and described previously unreported steps they’re taking to resolve the issue.

The Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health held the meeting to discuss six cannabis reform proposals, including two that would federally legalize marijuana. Most of the hearing involved lawmakers pressing witnesses from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) on the obstacles to marijuana studies that those officials claim are needed before pursuing broader policy reform.

Conversation was more limited when it came to legalization bills such as Judiciary Chairman Jerrod Nadler’s (D-NY) Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which was approved by his panel last year. That said, formerly anti-reform Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) did lead a powerful discussion about the failures of prohibition and the need to deschedule cannabis.

Kennedy announced that panel leadership has agreed to hold a second hearing featuring the voices of people negatively impacted by marijuana prohibition, which he said “has failed.”

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) said in his opening statement that “while state laws and public perception around cannabis and its derivatives have evolved over the years, much of the federal framework that regulates cannabis has stayed the same.”

Watch the hearing, titled “Cannabis Policy For the New Decade,” below:

After being repeatedly asked about the limited supply of research-grade cannabis and the lack of chemical diversity in those plants cultivated at the nation’s only federally authorized manufacturer, DEA Senior Policy Advisor Matthew Strait said the agency is aware of the issue and is actively developing regulations to address the problem by licensing additional growers.

“We actually have a draft regulation in place,” he said, adding that it’s currently being reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and that regulators have a call scheduled for Thursday to discuss the proposed rule.

“We know that we have to probably do notice and comment rulemaking to implement regulations on two matters: one is how we’re going to evaluate all of our pending applications and two what additional types of regulations might need to be in place in order to impose on those that would grow,” he said. “That regulation is in draft form. I can’t talk too much about it, but rest assured, we have submitted to OMB, it’s been drafted and tomorrow some of us will be getting on a call to talk through it.”

DEA, FDA and NIDA witnesses all agreed under questioning that the current supply of cannabis for study purposes is inadequate and that researchers should be able to access a wider range of marijuana products.

Kennedy, who recently became a cosponsor of the MORE Act, followed up on his opening remarks with a brief statement on his personal evolution on the issue and frustration over policies inhibiting research.

“Meanwhile, millions of Americans—mostly black and brown—have been locked up for non-violent drug offenses. Meanwhile, desperate parents are forced to turn to a black market with no concern for patient safety to get their children the relief that they need. Meanwhile our cities and states are trying, and at times stumbling, to put in place thoughtful and thorough regulatory frameworks with zero support from federal partners. And meanwhile, a brand new corporate industry is rising up, rife with predictable economic injustices that spring up whenever government fails to regulate. Prohibition has clearly failed and America isn’t waiting for its government anymore.”

He then asked NIDA Director Nora Volkow and FDA Deputy Director for Regulatory Programs Douglas Throckmorton whether removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) would make it easier for researchers to obtain and study it. Both said that the policy change would in fact simply research, though Volkow said it “may have unintended negative consequences.”

FDA and NIDA said their agencies would not be impacted if marijuana was descheduled, and DEA’s Strait acknowledged that his agency would because of its responsibility to enforce the CSA.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Anna Eshoo (D-CA) said researchers are “are in a catch-22” under the current regulatory scheme because they “can’t conduct research until they show cannabis has a medical use, but they can’t demonstrate cannabis has a medical use until they can conduct research.”

“It doesn’t make sense—at least to me,” she said.

Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA) said that the “United States Congress made a mistake, and every Congress since has not had honest hearings and honest dialogue and has not allowed—truly allowed—the researchers in this great country to do the true research that needs to be done for us to properly categorize cannabis in this country.”

“As a result of that, we have millions of individuals in this country who have been subjected to incarceration and a criminal record that otherwise they would have a much more productive and better life and that as a society, we would be much better off, including the taxpayers, if we were to actually get this right,” he said.

There were several exchanges throughout the hearing—which was requested by four Republican members last month—where lawmakers opposed to comprehensive reform argued that cannabis is a gateway drug and that legalization represents a public health threat.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) brought cookies in plastic baggies and distributed them to members. He then pointed to an image of a THC-infused cookie that looks similar that are available in Oregon.

“Each of you, by the way, has a cookie in front of you. I have a pizza stand opening in an hour out in the hallway,” he quipped. “Now don’t worry, I didn’t get that carried away. You can actually eat these. The question is, how do you know if your child stumbled upon it?”

The congressman went on to say that descheduling marijuana “is a step too far and is something I cannot support.”

But there were other members who shared anecdotes about the consequences of prohibition, particularly on patients who stand to benefit from medical cannabis.

Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), for example, recalled that in the 1980s, he knew friends who would smuggle cannabis into a hospital for a man suffering from cancer and who wanted to improve his quality of life to spend time with his son. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) said her late husband, former Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) experienced “great pain” and was told that cannabis might treat it, but he declined in part because of its status as a federally illicit substance.

Several other lawmakers, including Cannabis Caucus Co-Chair Barbara Lee (D-CA), highlighted the hearing and remarked on its significance.

“Today, my [Energy Commerce] colleagues are holding a hearing on legislation to remove marijuana from the list of Schedule I drugs and allow for more research on the uses, impacts, and health benefits of cannabis,” Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA) said. “Looking forward to their discussion on these bills!”

“After years of working to advance cannabis reform in Congress, this critical hearing is an important milestone where another major congressional committee focused time and attention on our movement,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who spoke to Marijuana Moment on Tuesday about his expectations for the hearing, said in a press release. “It was important to hear a number of senior members of Congress affirming the change that is taking place at the state level and affirming the contradictions that are created by the federal government being out of step and out of touch.”

Pro-legalization group NORML also submitted written testimony for the hearing, stating that as “evident by the title of this hearing, our federal marijuana policies are stuck in the past.”

“It is time for Congress to amend them in a manner that comports with our current political and cultural reality,” the organization said. “For some 50 years, the cannabis plant has been improperly categorized and criminalized by federal law. It is time to re‐examine and amend this longstanding failed policy.”

Ahead of the hearing, a coalition of cannabis reform groups—including the National Cannabis Industry Association, Cannabis Trade Federation and Minority Cannabis Business Association—sent a letter to subcommittee leadership ahead of the meeting, encouraging members to take action on the various pieces of legislation.

“As organizations that collectively represent thousands of state-legal cannabis businesses around the country, ancillary industries, and our communities, we applaud your decision to hold a hearing on cannabis policy so early in the new legislative session,” the groups wrote. “This is a wonderful opportunity to continue the robust and groundbreaking discussion on this issue that took place in Congress last year and we commend your leadership in carrying it over into 2020.”

“As an industry, we understand that many lawmakers have concerns about the impact of the changing legal status of cannabis. We do not take these concerns lightly. These concerns underscore the need to establish a legal federal cannabis framework, as current federal policies can cause and exacerbate these concerns. We welcome the opportunity to work with lawmakers and regulators to determine the best paths forward as state and federal cannabis policy evolves.”

In their written testimony, DEA, FDA and NIDA representatives generally described the current state of federal marijuana policy, unsurprisingly without advocating for changes to cannabis’s current criminal status. That said, both DEA and NIDA seemed to at least recognize that existing policies are inhibiting research into the plant and signaled that changes are on the horizon.

Volkow wrote that the growing availability of cannabis products, particularly with high concentrations of THC, “raise serious public health concerns.” At the same time, however, “despite the public health urgency, legal and regulatory barriers continue to present challenges to advancing cannabis research.”

“Obtaining or modifying a Schedule I registration [for researchers to study marijuana] involves significant administrative challenges, and researchers report that obtaining a new registration can take more than a year,” she said. “Adding new substances to an existing registration can also be time consuming.”

“It would be useful to clarify aspects of the [Controlled Substances Act] that have been sources of confusion and administrative burden for the research community,” she said.

Additionally, Volkow acknowledged that the current situation, where the government has only authorized one facility to cultivate cannabis for researchers, “limits the diversity of products and formulations available to researchers and slows the development of cannabis-based medications.”

“Although the University of Mississippi supplies cannabis for clinical trials, it does not have the capacity to manufacture a broad array of cannabis-derived formulations for research or to supply these cannabis products for commercial development,” she said.

Strait wrote that his agency remains committed to expanding the number of federally authorized cannabis manufacturers for research purposes, noting that DEA is reviewing the situation but that ” adjustments to DEA’s policies and procedures may be necessary under applicable U.S. law to be consistent with certain treaty functions.”

“In the near future, DEA intends to propose regulations that would govern persons seeking to become registered with DEA to grow marihuana as bulk manufacturers, consistent with applicable law, taking into account recent changes in the Controlled Substances Act,” he said. “At present, a notice of proposed rulemaking is under review by the Office of Management and Budget.”

Volkow raised another issue, which other federal agencies have previously recognized, noting that “researchers supported by NIDA and other federal agencies are unable to access marketed cannabis products through state marijuana dispensaries.”

“There is a significant gap in our understanding of their impact on health,” she said. “The recent outbreaks of e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury (EVALI), which has been linked to informally-sourced THC-containing vape products, underscores the critical importance of facilitating researcher access to different product sources.”

A NIDA staffer told Marijuana Moment in an email last week that “rigorous research is essential for understanding how the changing cannabis landscape will affect public health, for guiding evidence-based policy, and advancing therapeutics.”

“However, there are significant regulatory challenges to conducting research with marijuana and other Schedule I drugs,” the official said. “NIDA [has] been working with the DEA and FDA on ways to ameliorate these challenges, but there is nothing publicly available to share at this time.”

This story has been updated to include details and quotes from the hearing.

Leading Marijuana Reform Advocate In Congress Weighs In On This Week’s Legalization Hearing

Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson

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State Of Montana Launches Online Hemp Marketplace To Connect Buyers And Sellers

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Say you’re a Montana farmer who has planted acres of industrial hemp. As harvest nears, you’re looking to offload it. Where do you go to find a buyer?

Montana’s Department of Agriculture says it has the answer.

The state this week announced the launch of an online “Hemp Marketplace,” unveiling an online portal meant to connect the hemp farmers with buyers in search of seeds, fiber and derivatives such as cannabidiol, or CBD.

“The Hemp Marketplace concept originated from the same idea as the department’s Hay Hotline,” the Agriculture Department says on its website, “only instead of hay and pasture, the online tool connects buyers and sellers of hemp and hemp derivatives.”

Listings are free of charge.

Montana online Hemp Marketplace screenshot

Montana Department of Agriculture

Montana farmers have embraced industrial hemp since the state legalized its production under a federal pilot program. The first legal crop was planted in 2017, and in recent years the state has led the country in terms of space dedicated to the plant. In 2018, for example, licensed farmers in Montana grew more acreage of hemp than any other U.S. state. While other states have since eclipsed the state’s hemp production—the crop became broadly federally legal through the 2018 Farm Bill—Montana remains an industry leader.

But to make revenue, farmers have to be able to sell their crop. That’s where the new hemp marketplace comes in. The online portal is essentially a sophisticated bulletin board for buyers and sellers, split into “Hemp for Sale” and “Hemp to Buy” categories.

“With hemp being a relatively new crop grown in Montana, the department recognizes that these markets are still developing,” Department of Agriculture Director Ben Thomas said in a statement. “The Hemp Marketplace was designed to help facilitate connections between buyers and sellers. I’m looking forward to seeing how the marketplace will continue to advance the industry.”

Listings include what type of products are on offer (or being sought), whether a given crop is organic and even whether laboratory testing data is available. The portal also organizes products into one of four varieties based on whether the hemp seeds have been certified by regulators. None of the products may contain more than 0.3 percent THC—the upper limit for what qualifies as hemp under both state and federal law.

Meanwhile, Montana voters are set to decide on Tuesday whether the state will legalize hemp’s more infamous cousin, high-THC marijuana. According to a poll released this week, passage looks likely: The survey, conducted by Montana State University at Billings, found that 54 percent of likely voters plan to support legal cannabis on the ballot. Another 38 percent said they were opposed, while 7 percent remained undecided.

At the federal level, officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration are still working to revise rules around marijuana and hemp to reflect Congress’s move to legalize hemp broadly in 2018. While the public comment on the proposals closed earlier this month, nine members of Congress cautioned the agency against adopting its proposed changes, warning some could put hemp producers at risk of criminal liability. Already a number of arrests and seizures have been made by law enforcement officers confused whether products were legal hemp or illicit marijuana.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), meanwhile, has faced separate criticism over its own proposed hemp rules, though it has been more proactive in addressing them. Following significant pushback from the industry over certain regulations it views as excessively restrictive, the agency reopened a public comment period, which closed again this month.

USDA is also planning to distribute a national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the market.

Montana Marijuana Legalization Ballot Measure Has Solid Lead In New Poll

Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak

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New Jersey Governor Steps Up Marijuana Legalization Push As New Ad Touts Economic Benefits Days Before Election

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With just a few days to go before Election Day, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) is continuing to stump for marijuana legalization in that state, extolling the economic and social justice benefits he says the change would bring. His latest comments came shortly after the release of a new campaign ad focusing on legalization’s economic impact.

“We’ll build an industry, it would be a revenue-generator,” Murphy said in an interview with Yahoo Finance. “I think at first it would be modest, but ultimately will grow, I think, into several hundred million dollars in the state budget.”

“Along with social justice,” he added, “that’s a pretty good, winning combination.”

Recent polling suggests voters are mostly on board with legalization, with surveys showing upwards of 60% support for Public Question 1, a referendum to legalize and establish a commercial industry around the drug. If it passes, some lawmakers hope legal sales to adults 21 and older could begin as soon as next month, though regulators and some advocates have pushed back on the plan to start sales in existing medical cannabis dispensaries, saying that it could lead to access and supply issues for patients.

Legalization would indeed likely bring in millions of dollars to the state budget, hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic downturn. But Murphy claims his chief motivation for supporting the measure is racial justice.

“When I became governor, we had the widest white–nonwhite gap of persons incarcerated, believe it or not, of any American state. The biggest reason was low-end drug offenses,” he said. “So I get there first and foremost because of social justice.”

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, one of the campaign committees behind New Jersey’s legalization effort, NJ CAN 2020, released a new 30-second ad emphasizing the economic benefits legalization could bring the cash-strapped state.

“At a time when this crisis has created challenges we all face—a budget deficit and a lack of funding for services we need—New Jersey could raise hundreds of millions of dollars to support our local schools, vital health care services and community programs, by simply voting yes on Public Question 1,” the ad says.

Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) also filmed a video in support of the measure. Appearing in a NJ CAN campaign video released Wednesday, he said prohibition “has not been a war on drugs, but a war on people.”

“Veterans, for example, are more likely to be arrested for drug use or possession of marijuana. Instead of getting help, they’re often hurt by a system that piles upon them criminal charges for doing things that two of the last three presidents admitted to doing,” he said.

Black, Latino and low-income communities are also disproportionately targeted by enforcement of drug laws, Booker added. “We can do this as a state so much more responsibly, and instead of destroying lives we can get more resources to help to empower the well-being of all New Jerseyans.”

In other legal states, cannabis has been a rare bright spot in terms of tax revenue. Oregon, for example, saw record sales this summer even as other areas of the economy slowed. State budget analysts said last month that they expect the strong sales to continue.

“Since the pandemic began, the increase in recreational sales have been more than 30 percent above forecast,” Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis said in a recent report. “Expectations are that some of these increases will be permanent.”

Other established markets, such as Washington state, Colorado and Nevada, have also seen “strong gains” in marijuana sales amid the pandemic, Oregon’s budget office noted.

Big money has also been flowing into New Jersey’s legalization campaign itself. A report released Thursday by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) shows that committees supporting the referendum have raised more than $2 million in campaign contributions. That’s compared to just $9,913 brought in by opponents.

“Assuming all available funds are spent, the marijuana ballot question already ranks eighth among the top ten most expensive public referenda in the Garden State,” ELEC Executive Director Jeff Brindle said. “Keep in mind that marijuana interests already have spent $4.1 million on lobbying between 2017 and 2019. So the industry’s overall political investment in New Jersey already has topped $6 million.”

If voters approve the referendum, lawmakers will still need to pass a bill to establish a framework for the state’s legal marijuana market. A legislative hearing to get a head start on planning was scheduled for last week, but that was canceled when a state senator leading the proposal went into quarantine after being exposed to the coronavirus.

Friday’s appearance by Murphy is the latest effort by the governor to encourage voters to back legalization. He also recorded a video that was released by NJ CAN 2020 earlier this month and recently called on voters to support the proposal in an email blast circulated by the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.

In July, Murphy described legalizing cannabis is “an incredibly smart thing to do” both from an economic and social justice perspective.

The governor isn’t alone in his attempts to get out the vote for cannabis reform. Filmmaker Kevin Smith earlier this month urged his Twitter followers to “VOTE YES when you see State Public Question Number 1: Constitutional Amendment to Legalize Marijuana.”

Also this month, the NJ CAN campaign scaled up its advertising push, releasing a series of English- and Spanish-language videos.

In June, the state Assembly passed a cannabis decriminalization bill that would make possession of up to two ounces of marijuana a civil penalty without the threat of jail time. The bill hasn’t advanced in the Senate.

Arizona Marijuana Opponents Release Five Misleading Attack Ads Ahead Of Legalization Vote Next Week

Photo courtesy of Gov. Phil Murphy

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Oregon Psilocybin Ballot Measure Can Help Dying People Find Peace, Doctor Says In TV Ad

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Oregon’s first-of-its-kind ballot measure to legalize psilocybin therapy has the potential to help ease mental suffering for terminally ill people, a medical doctor says in a new TV ad for the initiative.

“I’ve worked in end-of-life care for 28 years. In hospice, we believe when people are dying, we should treat their pain—physical or mental distress,” Dr. Nick Gideonse says in the 30-second spot. “There’s often mental suffering that comes with a terminal diagnosis.”

“So I support Measure 109 to allow psilocybin therapy for terminally ill people suffering from depression. It’s humane,” he said. “Yes on 109 will help those near death come to terms with their diagnosis and find peace.”

If approved by voters, adults would be able to access the psychedelic in a medically supervised environment. There aren’t any limitations on the types of conditions that would make a patient eligible for the treatment.

A previous ad released earlier this month by the campaign featured a state senator who is also a medical doctor saying that the measure “promotes safety for a therapy that can help people who are suffering.”

That followed an independent spot by the nonprofit Heroic Hearts Project going on the air in Oregon to tout the benefits of psilocybin therapy, but it didn’t mention the specific ballot measure.

A campaign working to pass a separate measure on the Oregon ballot to decriminalize drug possession and expand substance misuse treatment also recently released a series of ads.

The Oregon Democratic Party formally endorsed both measures last month.

Meanwhile, the psychedelic reform measure has drawn opposition from an unlikely source. Decriminalize Nature, which has led efforts to pass local policies reducing criminal enforcement against psilocybin and other entheogens, has argued that it could threaten equitable access to the substance.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment in January that he was in favor of the psilocybin reform proposal and that he would be working to boost the campaign as the election approaches. In August, he wrote in an email blast that passing the measure is necessary “because it tackles an important issue in our community, mental health, and it does so in an innovative and responsible way.”

Arizona Marijuana Opponents Release Five Misleading Attack Ads Ahead Of Legalization Vote Next Week

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman.

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