The bill would allow universities, manufacturers and other entities who receive permission from the Justice Department to conduct medical research related to marijuana. 

The bill would allow universities, manufacturers and other entities who receive permission from the Justice Department to conduct medical research related to marijuana.  Esther Kelleter/Getty Images

Medicinal Marijuana Research at Agencies Gets A Boost from Bipartisan Bill

The measure is likely to sail through the Senate and could give federal physicians more latitude in discussing medical cannabis with their patients.

The House on Tuesday passed a bill to expand research into medicinal uses of marijuana and its byproducts, creating new responsibilities and flexibilities for federal agencies related to the controlled substance. 

The Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act (H.R. 8454) would streamline the registration process for entities looking to conduct research on marijuana, tasking the Drug Enforcement Administration with maintaining the registry of researchers and providers. Universities, manufacturers and other entities would receive permission from the Justice Department to conduct medical research related to marijuana. DEA would also maintain a registry of firms producing marijuana for any drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration. 

The Health and Human Services Department would be prohibited from enforcing any rules on the approval process specifically for marijuana research, as it has done in the past. HHS, in coordination with its National Institutes of Health and “other relevant federal agencies,” would have to conduct its own research and issue a report to Congress on the potential therapeutic effects of marijuana and cannabidiol (CBD). It would also have to report on the potential effects of marijuana on the human body and “developing adolescent brains.” HHS and the other agencies would examine what barriers to research exist in states that have legalized marijuana and recommend how the federal government can help alleviate them. The Justice Department would ensure an adequate supply of marijuana for research purposes would always remain available. 

The Senate unanimously approved a similar bill in March and its authors have already promised to send the updated House version to President Biden’s desk.  

“For too long, the federal government has stood in the way of science and progress, creating barriers for researchers obtaining resources and approval to study cannabis,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who introduced the bill. “This bipartisan, bicameral legislation is an important first step to changing that.”

One provision of the bill would make it no longer be a violation of the Controlled Substances Act for a physician to discuss “the currently known potential harms and benefits of marijuana and marijuana derivatives, including cannabidiol, as a treatment with the patient.” That language could provide a big breakthrough at the Veterans Affairs Department, where veteran service organizations and other advocates have long called for an increased focus on marijuana as a way to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain and other issues that frequently plague veterans. Currently, veterans can tell their VA doctors about their marijuana use, but the providers can only note the information and cannot recommend or prescribe its use. 

Veterans have spoken out on the positive impacts marijuana had on treating chronic symptoms related to their service and its ability to wean them off prescribed opioids, while advocates have decried VA for standing in the way of critical research. Marquis Barefield, an assistant legislative director with Disabled American Veterans, said VA doctors currently only mark a patient’s record to note marijuana use and end the conversation there. The new bill, though a far cry from what DAV ultimately hopes to see, would provide a significant benefit in potentially allowing VA physicians to weigh the pros and cons of medical marijuana use. 

“Right now, the doctors can’t do that,” Barefield said. “This would be a step in the right direction to be able to even have the conversation with their veteran patients.” 

A Democratic aide who worked on the legislation said lawmakers are still trying to determine the impact the measure would have on VA employees and its authors are in conversations with the House Veterans Affairs Committee to sort that out. The hope, the aide said, is that it would move the ball forward at VA. 

If the Senate can once again act unanimously, there is optimism the chamber can send the bill to the White House for Biden’s signature in the coming days. It may end up taking a few months, however. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who introduced the bill in the Senate, said on Tuesday she was confident the Senate “will quickly pass” the House version so it can be enacted into law. Her coauthor on the bill, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said it was important to have federal agencies offer their stamp of approval to marijuana products. 

The bill “will empower the FDA to analyze CBD and medical marijuana products in a safe and responsible way so that the American public can decide whether to utilize them in the future based on sound scientific data,” Grassley said. “Researching marijuana is widely supported on both sides of the aisle, and it’s a smart step forward.”