More than two decades into the United States’ medical cannabis experiment, federal policymakers are set to authorize robust research of the plant for the first time.
State governments began legalizing marijuana for medical use in the late 1990s, and Iowa joined the movement with a limited program in 2017. But the substance still is under strict federal prohibition. The industry and the scientific community have been operating in a legal gray area, which hampers research and patient care.
Progress is within reach. The U.S. Senate this week unanimously approved a bipartisan bill to bolster cannabis research.
Sen. Chuck Grassley is a lead sponsor of the bill, and Sen. Joni Ernst is a co-sponsor. They’re joined by six Democrats and one other Republican in sponsoring the bill. A similar bill has already been approved by the U.S. House, offering a real shot at meaningful reform in the near future.
• Require the attorney general to grant research authorization to applicants who meet certain requirements.
• Allow researchers to request larger quantities and different strains of cannabis.
• Exclude hemp-derived CBD from the definition of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act.
• Direct drug regulators to approve cannabis-based treatments.
• Allow doctors to discuss harms and benefits of marijuana with patients.
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It is a policy Band-Aid, not the total overhaul of federal drug laws that advocates have been calling for. It’s far more restrained than a U.S. House bill approved this month, which would altogether remove marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances.
Grassley’s bill is a small step, but it’s firmly in the right direction.
“Researching marijuana is widely supported by my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and it’s a smart step forward in addressing this current schedule I drug,” Grassley said in a statement.
With each year, as states pursue aggressive marijuana reform, federal prohibition becomes more and more of a farce. The federal government has no capacity to fully enforce its drug laws, and officials have shown little interest in even trying over the past several years.
Marijuana is a Schedule I drug under federal law, meaning it is classified as having no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. No serious scientist or policymaker actually believes marijuana belongs on the same list as heroin, but Congress hasn’t taken action to correct it.
The apparent tension between state and federal laws is not sustainable. Carl Olsen, a leading marijuana policy advocate in Iowa, has been pressing the Drug Enforcement Administration to exempt state-authorized medical cannabis use from the federal drug law.
The feds last month denied Olsen’s petition, but he noted in a recent blog post that the timing was “interesting.” His letter from the DEA came just a few weeks before the United Nations voted to reclassify cannabis and the U.S. House voted for full legalization.
“One has to wonder if the DEA had to act fast while the status quo was still intact,” Olsen wrote this week.
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