By Jeff Bess, third-year student at the University of Washington School of Law.
Despite how you slice it, medical marijuana is on the rise: as of earlier this month, 25 states and the District of Columbia permit medical use of cannabis and a recent US News poll shows 89% support among the public for medical marijuana programs. Additionally, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Alaska, and the District of Columbia have voted to legalize recreational use of cannabis by adults, and there is a strong probability that list will grow this November. Even among those states that have not formally adopted a medical or recreational program, numerous jurisdictions have decriminalized possession of the drug.
Nonetheless, despite mounting signs of a trend towards relaxed regulation of cannabis, federal drug policy has remained essentially unchanged. The federal Controlled Substances Act continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic, meaning it is considered to have a high risk of dependency and has no accepted medical use. New legislation, however, could stand to break the impasse between state and federal law.
This week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill that would allow expanded access to cannabis for scientists conducting research on the plant’s potential medicinal qualities. Backed by an unlikely coalition of Republican Representative Andy Harris of Maryland (once described by the Washington Post as “marijuana’s biggest adversary”) and Democrat Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon (once described by Rolling Stone as Congress’s “top legal pot advocate”), the bill – dubbed the Medical Marijuana Research Act of 2016 – would remove administrative hurdles that many scientists in the field say obstruct legitimate medical research on cannabis. Under existing law, scientists are restricted to using cannabis cultivated on a federally-owned farm in Mississippi established by Richard Nixon for research purposes. Critics argue that the lack of access to modern strains, which tend to be both more potent and genetically diverse, is a major roadblock to advanced research into how particular cannabinoids may be used to treat certain diseases. What is more, because current law requires approval by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prior to acquiring government-produced cannabis, bureaucracy and administrative resistance make it notoriously difficult to gain clearance.
The Act, if passed, would break the federal government’s monopoly on cultivation of research-approved cannabis and would remove several layers of red tape that slows the process, such as onerous security reviews, research protocols, and approval timetables. Most importantly, the legislation flips the presumption in favor of approving new cannabis research unless it can be shown to be contrary to the public interest – a reversal of the existing standard, currently a steep uphill climb for applicants. The end result would be to provide a greater number of researchers greater latitude in designing and conducting studies that could prove – or disprove – the medicinal value of cannabis. Though existing studies weigh in favor of its medical utility, many argue this federally-sanctioned research is the key to moving forward.
For advocates of medical marijuana, even the mere introduction of the Medical Marijuana Research Act can be interpreted as the tide turning in their favor. As bill co-sponsor, cannabis opponent, and physician Rep. Harris told the Washington Post about the proposed legislation, “I would never want to deny a medicine to a patient that has been shown, with scientific rigor, to help them.” This is a marked shift from the vitriolic “reefer madness” rhetoric of yesteryear. Whatever the Medical Marijuana Research Act’s ultimate fate may be, its presence in the debate shows a new willingness on the part of lawmakers to reconsider the issue in a way that might be a sign of things to come.