A Capitol Hill hearing on cannabis legislation Wednesday underscored the regulatory straitjacket that restricts research and scheduling of cannabis in the United States.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health Subcommittee met to talk about “Cannabis Policies for the New Decade.” On the agenda: discussing the repercussions of six cannabis proposals currently winding their way through the federal system. Lawmakers spent much of the hearing, which continued for about three and a half hours, questioning witnesses from the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Agency about a conundrum confounding lawmakers and regulators, alike: How can authorities clear the way for more research on a schedule 1 substance?
Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.), once an opponent of cannabis legalization, eloquently voiced the shared frustrations.
“When I ask regulators at some of your agencies how we could make sure that this drug, like all drugs, was subject to the highest patient safety standards, I was told we couldn't until we had more research. So I asked, 'How do we do more research?' 'We remove marijuana from schedule 1,' I was told. How do we do that? Well, we need more research,” he said. “Federal government has hid behind that catch-22 for far too long. Meanwhile, Americans, mostly black and brown, have been locked up for nonviolent drug offenses.”
The witnesses' testimony and lawmakers' confusion underscored the shortcomings of a system that has permitted citizens wide access to substances like CBD and THC-rich cannabis, although neither researchers nor users know a tremendous amount about how they can affect a person’s health. Due to the historical inaction of lawmakers and regulators, and the slow-moving wheels of government, existing research is limited at best and problematic at worst. And the fate of future research remains caught in a tangle of bureaucracy.
Among the problems addressed during the hearing ー sometimes over and over again ー were the backlog of applications from researchers seeking to get DEA approval for cannabis cultivation; the poor quality of research-grade cannabis produced by the University of Mississippi, the only DEA licensed cultivation facility in the country; the FDA’s lengthy rule-making process for CBD regulations; and concerns about how to deal with youth drug abuse and drugged driving.
“We all keep asking you the same questions because we don’t understand what the answers are,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan and wife to the late Rep. John Dingell, in a particularly empassioned plea. “We all agree we need more research…so you've got to help us figure out how we are going to get out of this catch-22.”
Officials from NIDA, FDA, and DEA did empathize. The three witnesses agreed more research is imperative and recognized what’s at stake in delaying regulation.
“The bottom line is: we get it. Bottom line is we understand we need to identify a path as quickly as we can, but we need to be grounded in science,” said FDA Deputy Director for Regulatory Programs Douglas Throckmorton.
Throckmorton was specifically referring to the agency’s challenging work with CBD. In a process that is expected to take three to five years, regulators are attempting to write regulations that permit CBD both in pharmaceutical drugs and in non-drug products. But Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, said her agency’s work as a research organization has encountered similar tension.
“We don't legislate, we bring science. Science says marijuana is a substance with potential for addiction, but cannabinoids do have potential therapeutic use. You need to weigh if there is one bill that both accelerates research and protects the public,” she said.
When pressed on whether cannabis was a “gateway drug,” Volkow said there is evidence to suggest it increases brain sensitivity to other drugs, “but the same thing pertains to nicotine.” Concerns over the safety of cannabis fueled her reluctance to recommend de-scheduling cannabis altogether, when asked by lawmakers whether bills de-scheduling or rescheduling cannabis might open the way to more research. She, instead, proposed a new subcategory for schedule 1 to accelerate research, while maintaining restrictions on the drug.
Matthew Strait, DEA senior policy advisor, said in his opening statement that his agency is working on an interagency effort to keep the powerful opioid fentanyl and its analogues in schedule 1, while also streamlining research efforts. It could also apply to cannabis, he said.
“What do we need in terms of improving access to research? I feel as if this interagency group of folks here have worked collaboratively on a proposal that would do just that,” Strait said.
Despite the challenges, cannabis advocates and sympathetic lawmakers seemed pleased that the hearing drew attention to the research shortcomings and regulatory contradictions that have limited research on cannabis and other tightly-regulated drugs.
“These agencies have always tried to pass the buck and say that they can’t do anything about it, but they are fully capable of streamlining a lot of this research. And lawmakers … say they need more information in order to do anything, which may be a cop-out as well,” said Morgan Fox, spokesperson for the National Cannabis Industry Association. “It's a really good sign that lawmakers ... are starting to get a little more vocal. They are actually discussing ways to push this through instead of saying, ‘We need more research and so we’re not going to act on it.’”
The hearing was largely dominated by conversations about research, with little attention being paid to more sweeping reform bills like Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act and the MORE Act. But the hearing did touch on concerns around diversity in the industry and diversity in the scope of research. Rep. Kennedy also announced that he had called for an additional meeting to ensure social justice issues are central to the conversation around cannabis legalization.