Despite years of ignoring federal cannabis research applications, has the DEA given hope for a new frontier on cannabis research?

Late last month, the DEA announced it’s providing a pathway to expand opportunities for scientific and medical research into cannabis. I say cannabis because, even though the DEA’s announcement used the term “marijuana research,” it would include investigating cannabinoids and would have implications for hemp-derived products. The importance of language and legal definitions cannot be overstated.

The announcement also reinforced that under the 2018 Farm Bill, the hemp plant and its derivative compounds, including cannabidiol (CBD), at or below 0.3 percent THC, are no longer classified as controlled substances. Additionally, the agency no longer needs to be notified or provide registrations to growers cultivating hemp.

Anytime the government says the word marijuana, hemp or cannabis, the industry reacts. But just how significant of a shift does this represent?

For decades, federally approved marijuana research in the U.S. has been conducted by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. It’s worth noting that the federal government can only receive research proposals for controlled substances showing a high potential for abuse and addiction.

This seemed to change in 2016 under the Obama administration when the DEA announced that it would expand opportunities for cannabis research. Here at HLG, we submitted proposals to the agency on behalf of various clients – researchers, technology providers, and the like. These proposals basically said if you’re going to research marijuana, you should at least look at a broader range of cannabinoids.

But after the 2016 election, even though President Trump’s position on cannabis is neutral if not positive, his appointment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions would clearly not allow cannabis research beyond abuse and addiction. All those who heeded the call and submitted research proposals that year got no confirmation they were ever received by the government, including the ones submitted by HLG.

For the past three years, some of those who submitted proposals stopped asking questions and started taking action. In July 2019, the Scottsdale Research Institute filed a petition seeking to force the DEA to respond to its 2016 applications to manufacture marijuana for research purposes. The petition also asserts that the DEA has failed to comply with certain statutory deadlines regarding clinical research-based applications. While courts cannot change laws, and generally do not dabble or impact policy relating to government agencies, in this case, the message got through. The court admonished the Department of Justice for announcing a program that three years ago caused legitimate researchers to draft and submit proposals which never even received a follow-up.

This DEA’s new announcement is a response to this ruling.

Another notable case revealing the slowness of official response to these issues involves 12-year-old Alexis Bortell. In 2017, Alexis, along with a few other plaintiffs including former NFL lineman, Marvin Washington, sued the federal government for keeping marijuana a Schedule 1 drug. The definition of Schedule 1 is a substance with no medical benefit. Because a cannabinoid such as cannabinol, which can be derived from both legal definitions of cannabis — marijuana or hemp — is being used in pharmaceutical drugs, like Epidiolex, the schedule 1 designation no longer stands. This case was dismissed and then a federal appeals court re-instated it. Two years later, there’s been no official response from the government and the case is still pending.

So, will this recent DEA announcement signify the meaningful change we’ve been hoping for? At the very least, it’s created a framework, an open door that will spur researchers to submit additional applications. Perhaps it will finally mark the new frontier of American cannabis research — because we’ve all waited long enough.