Drugs

DEA Asked for Applications to Grow Marijuana for Research, But It Doesn't Approve Them

It's been nearly a year since the agency announced the policy, and not one application has been greenlighted.

Marijuana can be grown indoor or out.
Photo Credit: Project CBD

Almost a year after the Drug Enforcement Administration announced it would consider granting additional licenses to cultivate cannabis for research purposes — and despite drawing 25 applicants so far — the agency has yet to greenlight a new grow operation.

The DEA says it does not have a timeline to approve or deny applications and noted that it is dealing with a new review process. All applicants remain under review and none has been rejected, said Katherine Pfaff, a DEA spokeswoman.

But the lag has allowed critics of the agency to argue that the announcement was a public relations ploy and that the DEA remains dug in against marijuana research. And, they say, the signals from the Trump administration, particularly Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s embrace of a tough-on-drugs ethos, leave them doubting the agency will ever approve another grower.

“What has progressed with the DEA over the past year? Nothing,” said Rachel Gillette, an attorney at Greenspoon Marder in Colorado, who specializes in marijuana policy. “I would be surprised if we had another conversation in five years and they had granted another license.”

The DEA has been pressed to liberalize its policies on cannabis research in recent years, with scientists and others arguing that there’s a growing need for evidence-based research at a time when more people have started self-treating their diseases with marijuana. Experts warn there is little rigorous research validating marijuana as a medicine and that cannabis-based products are often unregulated.

“There are lots of constituents in marijuana besides the material that makes you happy,” said Lyle Craker, who studies medicinal plants at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and who has applied for a license. “We need to investigate those to gain full insight into the plant so we know what’s going on when we tell people what to use and what not to use. We need some basis.”

For decades, the only sanctioned source of marijuana available for U.S. research has been the University of Mississippi, which has an exclusive contract with the federal government. But scientists say the quantity and variety of cannabis produced there isn’t sufficient.

Many advocates for cannabis research heralded the DEA’s announcement last August that it would consider tapping new growers.

Craker submitted his application in February, after working with a nonprofit called the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and received follow-up questions from the DEA the next month. Craker responded to the questions on April 12, and he said he has not heard anything since.

“What is their policy?” Craker said. “They’re saying they’re open to research, but they don’t allow any.”

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), a doctor who supports easing restrictions on marijuana research, said a pharmaceutical company in his district has also applied for a license and that he has been in touch with the DEA to check on the status of the application.

But beyond that, a number of policy experts and advocates said they were not sure who else had applied. Pfaff, the DEA spokeswoman, said she could not discuss who has applied, or say whether they include academics, pharmaceutical companies, or growers in states with legal medicinal or recreational marijuana. It’s also unknown how many of the 25 applicants are worth serious consideration.

The DEA announcement last August came at the same time the agency ruled that marijuana would remain a Schedule 1 drug, defined as having a high potential for abuse and no medical value. Some scientists have long chafed at marijuana’s classification — which it shares with heroin and some hallucinogens — because it forces them to go through a series of security and regulatory hurdles before they’re permitted to study it.

Harris and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) are planning to introduce a bill this year that would ease some restrictions on scientists seeking to study marijuana. The two congressmen, who pushed a similar bill last Congress, are seen as a bit of an odd couple: Harris is a conservative who has fought legalizing recreational marijuana, while Blumenauer is one of the legalization movement’s top advocates in Congress.

But they agree that, even as more states legalize marijuana, experts still don’t fully understand if and how cannabis can be used as a legitimate medicine, and in what ways it might be harmful. The answers to those questions will only come with more scientific research, they say.

“If Andy and I can come together on this, it indicates how strong the consensus is that we should move forward,” Blumenauer said. “I am just shocked that [the DEA is] so frozen in time at a time when everybody who has their wits about them agrees we need to make research easier.”

Andrew Joseph writes about health and medicine for STAT. 

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