US House Passes Bill to Expand Medical Cannabis Research

The US House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to pass the Medical Marijuana Research Act, a significant step toward reducing barriers to cannabis research. 

The bill, H.R.3797, which has bipartisan sponsors and support, would increase the number of federally-approved suppliers of cannabis grown for research, and would streamline the approval processes. While many states have legalized cannabis for medical and adult use, researching cannabis remains cumbersome because cannabis is not only federally illegal, but in the strictest schedule of the Controlled Substances Act. The House House Committee on Energy and Commerce advanced the bill in September

New Jersey Representative Frank Malone referenced the United Nations vote in early December on the World Health Organization recommendation to reschedule cannabis to acknowledge its medicinal uses. 

“Unfortunately, American researchers seeking to study the products widely available in use by consumers in these states and territories face restrictions and numerous hurdles created by US federal policy,” Malone said. 

Malone also referenced testimony provided by National Institute on Drug Abuse director Nora Volkow. At a January House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health hearing on cannabis research, Volkow highlighted areas of concern that need more research, like cannabis use by pregnant people, and youth use, as well as the spread of e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury (EVALI). 

“Our understanding of the adverse effects of cannabis is incomplete. This was made clearly evident by the outbreak” of vaping-related lung injuries, Volkow said. Volkow was asked several times about whether cannabis was a gateway drug, to which Volkow responded, “It increases the likelihood that you are sensitive to the addictive effects of other drugs.” Volkow also highlighted that NIDA is creating a “unit” of cannabis that can be used for consistency across research, and expects that standard dose to be available within a year.

Republican Representative Greg Walden said that he supports the legislation, and laid out gaps in research that must be filled, especially around impaired driving. 

“We don’t even know at what point it is unsafe for marijuana users to drive. The THC levels that states have set … are simply arbitrary,” Walden said, adding that states also take different approaches to THC limits in food products. 

Walden called last week’s vote on the MORE Act “premature,” because lawmakers “didn’t have the data to justify this policy decision.” 

“It could also potentially put the US in violation of international treaty obligations. Any discussion of the scheduling must be preceded by a fuller understanding of the potential risks associated with cannabis use, which we currently do not have,” Walden said. 

Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer, a sponsor of the medical cannabis bill and longtime cannabis policy reform advocate, also referenced the need for better research around driving while cannabis-impaired. 

“The cannabis laws in this country are broken, especially those that deal with research. It’s illegal everywhere in America to drive under the influence of alcohol, cannabis, or any other substance. But we do not have a good test for impairment because we can’t study it,” Blumenauer said. “It’s a narrow bill that fixes one of many broken cannabis laws,” he added, emphasizing that the research bill “in no way negates the need to move forward with other areas of legalization,” like the MORE Act.

Maryland Representative Andy Harris said that the MORE Act vote was a “ready, fire, aim approach. Let’s go ahead and legalize it, even for recreational use, without a medical basis.” 

Harris added that while he might disagree with Blumenauer with many other aspects of other cannabis bills, the two of them “agree 100% that we need to do this research and we need this bill.” 

Harris asked House colleagues whether medical marijuana be useful for veterans seeking to alleviate symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.

“Absolutely, it might be useful. We have no idea. So what we’ve done is, instead, the public press has said it’s useful for PTSD. But that’s not the way we treat medicine in this country,” Harris said. “This is on us. We shouldn’t have taken this long,” Harris said, adding, “Let’s do the science. Let’s see what medical marijuana is useful for.”

Michigan Representative Debbie Dingell agreed, saying that it’s “high time we modernize our nation’s federal regulations to facilitate legitimate medical research into the impacts of marijuana,” because “we need answers.”

Dingell said during a September House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing and vote that she “begged” her late husband, former U.S. Rep. John Dingell, who died in February with cancer, to try medical cannabis the last year he was alive. He wouldn’t, she said, “because we didn’t have the data.” Dingell spoke about this experience at last year’s Hash Bash, held at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus. 

Virginia Representative Morgan Griffith said that Congress “doesn’t always work well, but sometimes it does,” and used medical cannabis as an example, because lawmakers who disagree on some aspects of cannabis policy can generally agree that more research needs to be done. 

“This is extremely important. And you can be either for medicinal marijuana or against medicinal marijuana. But you can’t make an argument either way without the proper research,” Griffith said. 

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