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As Americans continue to regularly advance cannabis legalization across the country, a new bill aims to provide much needed federal policy reform.

With young adults’ marijuana use at an all-time high as states continue to pass legislation legalizing marijuana for medical and/or recreational use, the federal government is, at long last, taking a closer look. As we discussed in a prior blog post, cannabis reform initiatives recently made five states’ November ballots, and the industry was closely monitoring results as voters weighed in.

The number of states allowing for medical marijuana now vastly outnumber the states opposing it at 37 to 13. Many of those states that have legalized marijuana for medical purposes have taken another step forward, giving the green light for recreational use; Maryland and Missouri most recently joined the march this past month, making 21 states that now allowing for recreational use. Unfortunately, recreational marijuana ballot measures failed in Arkansas, South Dakota, and North Dakota.

Some states may have struck down legalization efforts, but the growing conversation around marijuana reform has not gone unnoticed by the federal government. In October, President Biden officially pardoned federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana. Many critics noted that the pardon felt like more of a PR stunt impacting only a small percentage of simple possession cases, as these offenses are rarely prosecuted under federal law.

However, Biden may now be able to make a true impact on structural reform which will provide the industry at large with reliable educational resources and data. Both chambers of Congress passed the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act on November 17, 2022, making it the first standalone marijuana bill to reach the President’s desk.

If approved by President Biden, the bill will establish a new registration process to facilitate research on marijuana. Currently, marijuana is categorized as Schedule 1 in the Controlled Substance Act (the “CSA”). According to 21 U.S.C § 812(b)(1), Schedule 1 substances are classified as having a high propensity for addiction, no medical benefit, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. Generally, the higher on the drug scheduling list, the more regulatory hoops researchers must jump through in order to conduct studies on a substance’s effects. Sitting at the top of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) list, marijuana has shockingly been more difficult for researchers to explore than methamphetamine, cocaine, and even fentanyl.

Although the bill does not change marijuana’s designation as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, it does ease certain regulatory restrictions provided in the CSA in order to facilitate further research, which could lead to its removal from Schedule 1. In particular, the bill provides the DEA with procedures to register:

  • practitioners to conduct marijuana research
  • manufactures to supply marijuana for the research

It prohibits the Department of Health and Human Services from reinstating the interdisciplinary review process for marijuana research and requires further reports on therapeutic potential of marijuana for various medical conditions – such as epilepsy and stroke patients – and any potentially harmful impacts including the impact on adolescent brains and ability to operate a motor vehicles. The bill will also generally allow for physicians to more openly weigh the pros and cons of marijuana use with their patients.

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Should the bill be approved, research on cannabis is anticipated to be free of several regulatory restrictions currently in place surrounding the plant’s scientific analysis.

Proponents of the bill have long supported expanding ease of access to marijuana for health and therapeutic study, and have lauded the bill’s efforts to ensure that researchers can access marijuana from multiple sources. For decades, the only marijuana that researchers have had access to has been marijuana cultivated at the University of Mississippi, which more closely resembles marijuana grown in decades past. With the rapid acceleration of the marijuana industry across the country and the proliferation of new technologies and tools to more efficiently cultivate marijuana, it’s imperative that researchers have access to product that more accurately reflects the nature and potency of products available to consumers nationwide.

According to a White House spokesperson, President Biden has every intention of signing the bill into law in the coming weeks. Though the bill’s passage may not feel groundbreaking in light of the many statewide legalization initiatives that failed only a few weeks ago, it may finally provide the marijuana industry with reliable information to reference for years to come.

Even though the bill remains neutral and does not endorse the legalization of marijuana, the research that comes from it may be a step in the right direction of destigmatizing its use in the eyes of legislators and the public. The data provided by this new research could also help expand the diversity of marijuana products, provide for marijuana industry best practices, advance marijuana related technology, lead to the re-scheduling (or de-scheduling) of marijuana under the CSA, and generally assist the federal government in developing much-needed substantive policy reform, easing the burden that has weighed on the marijuana industry for years.

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