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Congress Passes Landmark Cannabis Research Bill

The landmark U.S. Senate legislation to expand marijuana research was approved Wednesday. It marks the first time that both houses of Congress have ever passed a single cannabis bill. The bill, called the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act (the “Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act”), was passed by the House of Representatives this summer and is now headed to President Joseph Biden.

The cosponsors of the House legislation were Earl Blumenauer, a Democratic Representative from Oregon, and Andy Hariss (a Maryland Republican Representative). They noted the importance of the legislation following Wednesday’s Senate vote.

“After working on the issue of cannabis reform for decades, finally the dam is starting to break. The passage of my Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act in the House and Senate represents a historic breakthrough in addressing the federal government’s failed and misguided prohibition of cannabis,” Blumenauer, the founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said in a statement. “As we have seen in state after state, the public is tired of waiting for the federal government to catch up. More than 155 million Americans—nearly half of our nation’s population—now reside in states where adult-use of cannabis is legal.” 

The House of Representatives passed the bill in July with a vote of 325-95. It was an overwhelming bipartisan majority during a period of fierce partisan divisions in Washington. This bill may signal the beginning of a new age in cannabis policy. Other legislation, including one that allows regulated marijuana businesses to have access to the bank system, are still awaiting Senate approval. The Senate passed the legislation unanimously on Wednesday. It was sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic from California and Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, as well as Senator Brian Schatz (a Democrat hailing from Hawaii).

“For far too long, Congress has stood in the way of science and progress, creating barriers for researchers attempting to study cannabis and its benefits,” Blumenauer continued. “At a time when more than 155 million Americans reside where adult-use of cannabis is legal at the state or local level and there four million registered medical marijuana users with many more likely to self-medicate, it is essential that we are able fully study the impacts of cannabis use.”

Laws relax restrictions on marijuana research

This bill will ease federal regulations on cannabis research, as it is currently classified as a Schedule 1 controlled drug. This legislation simplifies the process of applying for approval for marijuana-related scientific research. It makes it simpler for researchers to study the possible medical benefits of cannabis. 

According to the legislation, the U.S. attorneys general will have a 60 day deadline to review and approve marijuana research applications or to submit additional information requests to researchers. Additionally, the bill includes provisions that encourage U.S. Food and Drug Administration support for the development of cannabis-derived medicines.

“There is substantial evidence that marijuana-derived medications can and are providing major health benefits. Our bill will make it easier to study how these medications can treat various conditions, resulting in more patients being able to easily access safe medications,” Feinstein said in a statement from the senator’s office. “We know that cannabidiol-derived medications can be effective for conditions like epilepsy. The bill will improve current CBD medicine practices, and allow for the development of new uses. After years of negotiation, I’m delighted that we’re finally enacting this bill that will result in critical research that could help millions.”

President Expected To Sign Bill

Biden called on the government to relax restrictions on marijuana research while campaigning for 2020. And last month, he directed the “Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.” In a statement, Schatz appeared to indicate that he expects the president to sign the cannabis research bill passed by Congress.

“The medical community agrees that we need more research to learn about marijuana’s potential health benefits, but our federal laws today are standing in the way of us finding those answers,” said Senator Schatz. “Our bill, which is now set to become law, will remove excessive barriers that make it difficult for researchers to study the effectiveness and safety of marijuana, and hopefully, give patients more treatment options.”

However, not all are praising the legislation for its progress in cannabis policy reform. Shane Pennington is an attorney at Vicente Sederberg LLP for cannabis and psychedelics. He sent an email to Chronic News that the legislation “is a terrible terrible bill that will make research harder, not easier.” He explains the legislation unnecessarily complicates research into cannabidiol, among other issues.

“The bill imposes various DEA-registration requirements on entities seeking to handle CBD and/or ‘any [marijuana] derivative, extract, preparation, or compound.’ Under current law, however, neither CBD nor any non-marijuana cannabis ‘derivative, extract, preparation, or compound’ qualifies as a ‘controlled substance.’ Thus, as things stand today, you don’t need any special DEA registration to research them,” Pennington wrote on Substack. “By imposing registration requirements on these otherwise-non-controlled substances, this bill dramatically increases barriers to cannabis research.”