In a positive signal for the cannabis industry, lawmakers from both parties and three government witnesses told a U.S. congressional subcommittee Wednesday the federal government urgently needs more access to research around marijuana.
But it remains unclear when that will occur, which could hinder the cannabis industry’s prospects if additional research findings are needed to overcome the skepticism that is holding back federal legalization reform.
During the hearing, lawmakers spoke of a catch-22: Research is restricted because cannabis is currently considered a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substance Act, yet more research would better determine if marijuana should be rescheduled or descheduled.
“It’s time to get the data and let the decision be driven by the data,” U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, a Texas Republican, said during the hearing of the Health subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Burgess is the leading Republican on the subcommittee.
Research could take years, however.
The marijuana industry and a number of lawmakers – especially Democrats from the progressive wing – say it’s time to deschedule cannabis now.
Subcommittee Chair Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, said the hearing was the first ever on cannabis by the Energy and Commerce Committee, the oldest committee in the House of Representatives.
She opened the hearing saying its purpose was to consider six bills, including three cannabis research bills and some descheduling measures, but the meeting focused more generally on what is currently known about the health effects of marijuana use and the impediments to further research.
No one from the cannabis industry was invited to testify, but Eshoo said she would have a follow-up hearing “with additional stakeholders.”
The status of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug means that research needs to be approved by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and, although the DEA supports expanding research, it has yet to act on 33 pending research applications.
Critics have charged that the DEA is dragging its feet.
Matthew Strait, a DEA senior policy adviser, insisted in his testimony the agency is “fully committed” to supporting cannabis research.
But he received pushback from U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui, a California Democrat, when he suggested delays were caused in part by incomplete research applications. Matsui said she believes the University of California, Berkeley, knows how to submit a complete application.
More to the current delay, the DEA determined it needed to establish new policies for evaluating cannabis research applications and for the research program in general.
A notice of proposed rulemaking is under review by the Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget, according to Strait’s testimony.
But Strait didn’t give a specific timeline when the process would be finished and when the DEA would approve additional research applications.
Cannabis grown for research also is an issue.
Currently, the University of Mississippi is the only DEA-licensed cannabis supplier, and lawmakers and the three government witnesses agreed that’s inadequate. They said researchers need to assess a wide array of products and potencies sold in state-legal markets.
Rep. Joseph Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the hearing was “long overdue.”
But Kennedy noted that “critical stakeholders” were missing from the conversation, including those who have been victims of the war on drugs, medical cannabis patients and “small-business owners trying to find a fair footing in the industry.”
Because industry was shut out of Wednesday’s hearing, a broad coalition representing the industry sent a letter to the subcommittee urging Congress to pass comprehensive legislation that would remove cannabis from the list of controlled substances and allow it to be regulated at the federal level.
Jeff Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org