In historic first, Congress passes medical marijuana research bill

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The U.S. Senate approved bipartisan legislation that would ease restrictions on medical marijuana-related research, sending to President Joe Biden’s desk the first of what the cannabis industry hopes is a flurry of MJ-related bills over the next month.

It’s also the first time Congress has passed a bill solely related to marijuana.

The bill, which had support from Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Dianne Feinstein, D-California – the two were for years considered obstacles to marijuana reform – passed the Senate on Wednesday without a vote via a process called unanimous consent.

Passed by the House in July, the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act would allow research universities as well as private companies, including pharmaceutical firms, to acquire U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration licenses to grow and handle cannabis for scientific purposes.

From 1968 until 2021, the only institution in the United States allowed to grow research-grade cannabis was the University of Mississippi.

The DEA has since authorized six other “bulk manufacturing licenses,” most recently in August.

Critics, including prominent researchers, have long said that the supply of marijuana available for research is inadequate: It’s low potency and low quality, unlike most commercial cannabis, and there isn’t enough of it.

Even with more suppliers, research-grade cannabis is also extremely difficult to acquire.

Because marijuana is a Schedule 1 controlled substance, access is tightly controlled by the DEA, which sets numerous bureaucratic hurdles as well as security measures that many would-be researchers say are too expensive.

In addition to easing restrictions on research, the bill:

  • Would specifically allow doctors to discuss with patients the “potential harms and benefits” of cannabis.
  • Would instruct the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to research “the therapeutic potential of marijuana” while also studying how cannabis affects adolescent brains and driving ability.

If signed into law by the president, the bill “would eliminate the red tape that hinders cannabis research, opening the door for new, innovative treatments derived from cannabis,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said on the Senate floor Wednesday night.

“I hope that after passing this bill, the Senate can make progress on other cannabis legislation too,” Schumer added.

“We are going to try very, very hard to get it done.”

Among the other cannabis-related bills awaiting consideration in Congress is the SAFE Banking Act, which would prohibit federal financial regulators from punishing banks that do business with “legitimate” state-legal cannabis operations.

That bill has also passed the House of Representatives but has been stalled in the Senate.

It’s unclear if that bill has support from at least 60 senators, the threshold needed to defeat a filibuster and pass controversial legislation.

However, Washington DC-based cannabis lobbyist Saphira Galoob said  she believes as many as 65 senators could ultimately support the banking bill.

The SAFE Banking Act currently has 42 co-sponsors, including nine Republicans.

Chris Roberts can be reached at