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DEA Announces Plans To Expand Scientific Research For Marijuana

By Paul Gaita 09/12/19

The agency also revealed plans to propose new regulations to evaluate these applications before reviewing and making possible approvals.

researcher performing scientific study on marijuana
ID 140436708 © Witthaya Prasongsin |

Clinical studies involving marijuana moved a substantial step forward with an announcement by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to "facilitate and expand" applications for research into medical and scientific applications of cannabis.

The agency intends to expand its review of applications from qualified growers who seek to cultivate marijuana for research. In doing so, the DEA noted that it will "increase the variety of marijuana available for these purposes."

However, the agency also stated that it plans to propose new regulations to evaluate these applications before reviewing and making possible approvals. For researchers whose work has been hampered by marijuana's status as a federally illegal Schedule I drug, the news has prompted a response tempered with cautious optimism, given the DEA's slow response to change on this topic in the past.

A Monopoly on Marijuana for Research

For the past half-century, a single facility at the University of Mississippi was legally approved by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to grow marijuana for scientific and medical research.

As Think Progress noted, that scenario was a major roadblock to researchers; the facility produced only a handful of cannabis varieties and what was described as "low-grade" flower. 

In 2016, the DEA announced its plans to expand research facilities, prompting numerous scientific and medical entities to apply for research grow licenses. However, as Think Progress noted, nothing came of the announcement.

According to the DEA announcement, the number of applicants registered to conduct research has increased by 40% (from 384 in 2017 to 542 in 2019), while product quoted for federally approved research projects has doubled. The announcement of expanded review for these applications is a step in the right direction, according to researchers who have been waiting for years for approval—albeit a step that they suggest should be taken with a grain of salt.

Proceed With Caution

"DEA/DOJ can slow-roll this for many years to come, leaving progress of medical cannabis research in limbo indefinitely," wrote Dr. Sue Sisley of the Scottsdale Research Institute in a statement.

Sisley, who conducted a federally approved study on cannabis as treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, applied for a grow grant in 2016 based on the "sub-par" cannabis provided by the NIDA-approved facility. When she received no response for three years, she filed suit against the DEA. The agency's announcement was delivered two days before a major deadline imposed by the suit.

"At least [the] door is now theoretically kicked open," Dr. Sisley wrote. "Now we just need to keep the DEA's feet to the fire."

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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