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Legislators Push Obama to Ease Marijuana Research

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A bipartisan group of U.S. Senate and House members is asking President Obama to help lift roadblocks standing in the way of scientific research on marijuana’s medical benefits.

“As states have attempted to expand access to medical treatments for their citizens, the federal government has a responsibility to act in a manner that allows patients to benefit from research on those treatments,” the ten senators and 17 House members wrote in a letter to the president on Friday. “Until we have comprehensive scientific research on the medical risks and benefits of cannabis and its derivatives, we will continue to debate this issue on the basis of outdated ideology instead of modern science.”

Specifically, they are asking the Obama administration to take two steps that they say could ease research.

First, they want the president to ensure that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which is currently weighing whether to reclassify marijuana under federal law, makes the decision in a fair and transparent manner.

Cannabis is currently under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the most restrictive category, which is supposed to be reserved for drugs with no medical value. While heroin and LSD are also in Schedule I, cocaine is classified in Schedule II, a less burdensome designation.

A growing number of scientists say that reclassification could make research easier.

Pointing to past DEA dismissals of petitions to reschedule marijuana, including over the objections of the agency’s own administrative law judge, the lawmakers are asking the president to apply pressure for public hearings before a decision is made.

“Given previous issues with transparency in the scheduling process, we request that public hearings also be held to allow researchers, doctors and patients an opportunity to inform this decision in an open, transparent manner,” they write.

Medical marijuana advocates agree with the call for public hearings. “The current federal policy that cannabis has no accepted medical value is clearly inaccurate,” Mike Liszewski of Americans for Safe Access, told Marijuana.com in an interview. “If the DEA refuses to hold public hearings and they ultimately decide to maintain their current position, they will severely undermine the public’s trust. This is not just about medical cannabis, the integrity of the Controlled Substances Act is at stake.”

DEA is expected to make a determination on rescheduling by July.

The group of legislators, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), is also asking for the president’s help in approving more sources of marijuana for research studies.

Currently, the only legal supplier of cannabis for scientists is the University of Mississippi, which operates under a license from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

While the situation has long been referred to by advocates as the “NIDA monopoly,” the blame actually lies at DEA’s feet. NIDA Director Nora Volkow testified at a Senate hearing last year that there is “no scientific reason” for the monopoly, that it “is not something NIDA chose to do” and that without it, “efficiency, effectiveness, availability for research would be better.”

While DEA has claimed that the monopoly is a necessity under international drug control treaties to which the U.S. is a party, the lawmakers point out that several other nations already allow multiple producers without violating the treaties.

“We request that you direct the DEA Administrator to eliminate this barrier to research and grant additional licenses outside of the NIDA drug supply program to provide a supply of cannabis which is adequate to do medical research,” they wrote.

In the letter, the lawmakers acknowledge that the changes could be achieved by Congressional action. But given the difficulties of passing legislation on Capitol Hill these days, they want the administration to act unilaterally.

With Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) signing a medical cannabis bill into law on Sunday, there are now 24 U.S. states that have comprehensive medical marijuana programs. Another 17 states have laws allowing for use of nonpsychoactive cannabis extracts that rich in cannabidiol, a compound that has been shown to help people suffering from severe seizure disorders.

“Despite these developments, researchers, doctors, and patients in these forty states are still subject to several federal barriers impeding innovation and medical research,” the lawmakers wrote.

Cover photo courtesy of Stokkete

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