Two years ago, federal drug authorities said they would consider licensing new suppliers of marijuana grown for scientific purposes, a move seen as an acknowledgment of the need for additional rigorous research into potential medical uses and risks of cannabis and its components.
Hope you weren’t holding your breath.
The Drug Enforcement Administration still has not granted additional licenses for a grow operation, despite receiving more than two dozen applications in the year after it announced it was open to approving one. The agency told STAT it had stopped accepting new applications and referred additional questions about licenses to the Justice Department, which did not return requests for comment.
It’s not clear whether any progress is being made toward approving another purveyor. The Washington Post reported last year that the Justice Department, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, had stopped the DEA from approving an application to cultivate cannabis. Since then, however, Sessions has indicated some willingness to proceed in response to questions from lawmakers.
“It’d be healthy to have some more competition in the supply, but I’m sure we don’t need 26 new suppliers,” he said in October 2017, referring to the number of applicants.
And in April, he told senators: “We are moving forward, and we will add, fairly soon I believe – the paperwork and reviews will be completed – and we will add additional suppliers of marijuana under controlled circumstances.”
The lag has fueled a sense that the Trump administration isn’t serious about green-lighting more grow operations. Sessions is seen as a firm opponent of any sort of marijuana policy liberalization. So while scientists and advocates celebrated the initial August 2016 announcement from the DEA, many have since said they’re resigned to not seeing another license granted.
Lawmakers and scientists say that more research is needed to determine whether marijuana can be used as a legitimate medicine, which individual components might have therapeutic potential, and what harms cannabis can cause. They say that the importance of scientific scrutiny is only growing as more states legalize marijuana recreationally and medically. (Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.)
Already, scientists can and do study marijuana. Once they’re cleared by authorities to conduct such research — a process that involves security checks and that scientists call unnecessarily onerous — they can get a supply of the plant from the University of Mississippi, which for decades has been the sole site allowed to grow marijuana. Many researchers, however, argue that the supply and variety provided by the Mississippi facility limit their scientific endeavors, though the head of the Mississippi facility disputes that claim.
Lawmakers from both major parties have been pressing the administration to move forward, efforts that have set up some political odd couples. Bipartisan bills from some of the most conservative and liberal members of Congress have been introduced in both the House and Senate to try to bulldoze some of the obstacles that stand in the way of studying marijuana. And in April, Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) wrote to Sessions asking that the administration decide on all applications by Aug. 11 — the two-year mark of the DEA’s announcement.
All of this comes as the Food and Drug Administration last month approved the country’s first treatment made from marijuana.
The medicine, Epidiolex, was approved to treat two epileptic diseases and is made from cannabidiol, or CBD, a component of marijuana that does not make people high. The drug is not made from marijuana grown in the U.S. Instead, its maker, GW Pharmaceuticals, grows its specially bred plants in the United Kingdom.