Last week, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced its plan to expand its existing marijuana research program. According to the August 26th press release by the DEA, pending cannabis production applications will receive notice regarding registration, which they anticipate “will increase the variety of marijuana available for these purposes.” Attorney General William P. Barr has expressed public support of the DEA’s announcement to expand its cannabis research program. In a recent statement, AG Barr said that he was “pleased that [the] DEA is moving forward with its review of applications for those who seek to grow marijuana legally to support research.” Going on, Barr added, “The Department of Justice will continue to work with our colleagues at the Department of Health and Human Services [,] and across the Administration to improve research opportunities wherever we can.” Uttam Dhillon, Acting Administrator for the DEA, had this to say regarding the program’s expansion: “[The] DEA is making progress in the program to register additional marijuana growers for federally authorized research, and will work with other relevant federal agencies to expedite the necessary next steps.” The DEA also intends to propose additional regulations governing the marijuana research program that “will help ensure DEA can evaluate the applications under the applicable legal standard and conform the program to relevant laws.”
The End of The Approval Freeze
Many of the pending licenses have been awaiting approval since as early as 2016; according to a recent Cannabis Business Times article, “not a single application has been approved in the past three years.” Registration with the DEA for marijuana research-related purposes has risen considerably since 2017, with the quota for cannabis production having more than doubled over the same time period. Marijuana production has increased at the University of Mississippi, the only institution federally allowed to produce marijuana for research purposes, however, researchers are publicly questioning the quality of the cannabis being produced and the value of the research derived from it. One group is even attempting to sue the DEA over the issue. In June of this year, along with her colleagues, Dr. Sue Sisley, a researcher at the Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI), formally initiated a lawsuit against the DEA, both for ignoring its cultivation license application and over the poor quality of the cannabis. The group has been conducting an ongoing study on treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) using medical marijuana, the first FDA-approved study of its kind. The complaint reads, “To comply with federal law, SRI must use federally-sourced cannabis, grown exclusively on a single 12-acre farm run by the University of Mississippi. SRI used this cannabis for its Phase II trials. It arrived in powdered form, tainted with extraneous material like sticks and seeds, and many samples were moldy. Whatever reasons the government may have for sanctioning this cannabis and no other, considerations of quality are not among them. It is not suited for any clinical trials, let alone the ones SRI is doing. Simply put, this cannabis is sub-par.” In response, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals has ordered the DEA to provide an explanation for the delay in application approval and registration. The DEA’s public announcement just last week came just before the August 28th deadline set by the D.C. Court.