DEA May Be Coming Around On Expanding Marijuana Research

By Kelly Burch 08/30/19

The DEA will finally review potential growers of marijuana used in research, which is currently very limited in quantity and quality.

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scientist waiting for approval from DEA to research marijuana
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After years of delaying progress that would expand the supply of marijuana for research, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced Monday that it will move forward with reviewing potential marijuana growers. 

The agency issued a regulatory filing and held a press conference on Monday. 

"I am pleased that 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 in a statement. 

One Grow Facility

Right now, scientists who want to study cannabis must use marijuana grown by one University of Mississippi facility, the only grower that has a contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to legally grow cannabis. This limits the amount of marijuana research that can be done, as well as the quality of the product being studied.

In 2016, the DEA announced that it would accept applications from other organizations seeking to grow cannabis for research, but it never approved any permits. 

That prompted one scientist, Dr. Sue Sisley, director of Scottsdale Research Institute, to sue the agency, alleging that the current arrangement is a monopoly on marijuana growth. "The bottom line is scientists need access to options," Sisley told NPR.

Sisley’s lawsuit likely prompted the DEA’s action on Monday, Think Progress reported

Shane Pennington, who is on Sisley’s legal team, said that although the announcement may have seemed dry, it was monumental. “Until today, no one could do anything. We were handcuffed, in limbo,” he said. “Now they’ve done something. It’s a huge, huge deal.”

Still, he was a bit apprehensive, saying, “I have high hopes, but I'll believe it when I see it.” 

Matt Zorn, a lawyer for the Scottsdale Research Institute, said that he is “cautiously optimistic” following Monday’s announcement. "It's a positive first step because we were stuck in a kind of administrative limbo,” he said. 

Catch-22

Zorn explained how marijuana’s Schedule I status creates a catch-22. 

"On the one hand, you can't do the research with good, high-quality cannabis because it's a Schedule I drug. On the other, it's a Schedule I because nobody can really do the research," he said.

Sisley pointed out that getting approval to grow cannabis for research is just the first step. Then, scientists will need to grow marijuana that is comparable to the high-quality pot that people obtain from dispensaries. 

"We haven't really won anything until scientists are finally utilizing real-world cannabis flower in their clinical trials," she said.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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