The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has just released a statement announcing plans to improve access to marijuana for researchers. In recent months, the DEA has faced pressure from lawmakers and advocacy groups to speed up its approval of medical cannabis producers. And in May, thirty members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to DEA leaders calling on them to act on the backlog of dozens of application from companies wishing to grow cannabis for federal research.
Now, DEA says it will move forward with its review of those applications. But before it makes any decisions, DEA intends to propose new rules for the federal government’s research cultivation program.
Under Pressure, DEA Sets Plan to Approve More Marijuana Growers
It’s not easy obtaining federal approval for researching cannabis. Since the federal government considers cannabis a Schedule I substance, cultivating for Uncle Sam requires approval from multiple government agencies. Companies that want to cultivate cannabis to support medical research need approvals from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the DEA.
For the past few years, DEA has been the bottle-neck in the approval process. DEA began accepting applications to grow marijuana for research three years ago. But when the Trump administration took office, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to sign-off on the few applications DEA did approve. As a result, there are currently just a handful of federally-approved medical cannabis cultivators.
And those cultivators have a reputation for producing cannabis of extraordinarily low quality. Researchers have complained for years about the subpar samples with which they must conduct their studies. They say weed grown for federal research is nothing like the products currently available on commercial or illicit markets.
But under mounting pressure for health experts, researchers and policy-makers, and with a new Attorney General who’s at least a little less hostile toward cannabis than Sessions, the DEA has been forced to act. “I am pleased that the DEA is moving forward with its review of applications for those who seek to grow marijuana legally to support research,” said Attorney General William Barr. Barr vowed to improve the working relationship between DEA and the Justice Department moving forward.
New Federally-Approved Growers Will Improve Cannabis for Research
In its statement announcing the steps necessary to improve access to marijuana research, DEA said it “anticipates that registering additional qualified marijuana growers will increase the variety of marijuana available for these purposes.”
DEA is also moving to expedite the registration process with that goal in mind. “We support additional research into marijuana and its components,” said DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon. “And we believe registering more growers will result in researchers having access to a wider variety for study.”
DEA’s statement also issued a reminder that under the federal government’s new hemp authorization, research into cannabis containing less than 0.3 percent THC by dry weight no longer requires DEA authorization. By definition, any hemp/cannabis plant below that 0.3 percent THC threshold is no longer a controlled substance.
DEA Will Set New Rules for Federal Medical Marijuana Growers
In an implicit response to critics of its slow pace of approval, DEA also shared data about the progress it has made on registering new cultivators. In its statement, DEA has that the total number of individuals approved to conduct research with marijuana, extracts, derivatives and THC had increased 40 percent between 2017 to 2019, now totaling 542. Similarly, DEA said it “more than doubled” the production quota for marijuana each year based on the expansion of federally-approved research projects.
Still, the pace of DEA approvals is not keeping up with demand or the urgency of cannabis studies. And despite its announcement, DEA hasn’t released a clear timetable. In fact, there could be further delays. Before making any decisions on pending applications, the DEA will go through a process of creating new rules for governing the marijuana growers program for scientific and medical research.
That process will include a public comment period that while crucial for transparency, will further slow the approval process.