Senators Push Feds to Ease Restrictions on Cannabis Research

By Sarah Ferris, TheHill.com

purpleplantSen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wants to make it easier for government-paid researchers to study marijuana – and not just its negative side effects.

Eight Democratic senators, led by Warren, are urging federal health and drug officials to address the “data shortfall” on potential health benefits of medical marijuana by making it easier for researchers to study the drug.

Medical use of marijuana is now legal in 23 states, though it is difficult to study because it remains one of the country’s most tightly controlled substances.

“It is important that we make a concerted effort to understand how this drug works and how it can best serve patients through appropriate methods of use and doses, like any other prescribed medicine,” they wrote in a letter to government officials.

The letter was sent to the heads of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the Office of National Drug Control Policy – all of which have control over marijuana-related rules.

While the government does not prohibit research on marijuana, it is classified as a high-risk drug because of its potential for abuse and addiction.

Some medical benefits of “isolated components of the marijuana plant” have been recognized by the Food and Drug Administration. Still, marijuana is considered a “schedule 1 drug” under federal rules – a classification that also includes heroin and ecstasy.

Researchers must go through multiple layers of approval to use the drug. Under current regulations, medical marijuana can only be grown at the University of Mississippi, which partners with the only organization permitted by the government to do so, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Pointing to the growing number of users nationwide, the senators said the government agencies “have both an opportunity and a responsibility” to ensure adequate research.

The senators asked about the timeline for reconsidering marijuana’s status as a schedule 1 drug, and about efforts to help other groups besides NIDA acquire permits to grow the drug for research purposes.

The letter comes less than a week after several House lawmakers tried to attach a medical marijuana research amendment to a 350-page drug development bill, 21st Century Cures. The amendment was cosponsored by one of the House’s biggest marijuana foes, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), one of its biggest proponents of legalization.

The amendment was not added to the final legislation, which cleared the House on Friday.

Warren first said she supports medical marijuana in fall 2012, shortly after her father died of cancer.

“If there’s something a physician can prescribe that can help someone who’s suffering, I’m in favor of that,” she told Boston’s WTKK-FM. “It should be like any other prescription drug. That there’s careful control over it.”

The letter was also signed by Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) – all of whom have introduced or cosponsored previous marijuana legislation.

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