December 9, 2020 By Kyle Jaeger
Just days after voting to federally legalize marijuana, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a separate bill meant to promote research into the plant, in part by allowing scientists to access cannabis from state-legal dispensaries.
In a voice vote, the chamber passed the bipartisan Medical Marijuana Research Act, which previously advanced out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in September.
The bill, which has been slightly revised in the months since, was considered under a procedure known as suspension of the rules, meaning that no further amendments were allowed on the floor and a two-thirds majority was required to pass. The unlikely duo of pro-legalization Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and prohibitionist Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) are the lead sponsors of the legislation.
“The cannabis laws in this country are broken, especially those that deal with research,” Blumenauer said on the House floor prior to the vote. “It’s a narrow bill that fixes one of many broken cannabis laws. And I want to hasten to add that this in no way negates the need to move forward with other areas of legalization… But this is sort of a foundational question. No matter where you are, there’s no reason the federal government should impede this critical research.”
Harris, for his part, pointed out that he and Blumenauer probably disagree more vigorously with one another about marijuana legalization than any two other members of Congress. But “we agree 100 percent that we need to do this research,” he said.
“Now, unfortunately, because of the public policy we’ve had in place with marijuana and its scheduling, [research] simply couldn’t be done,” Harris, who is a medical doctor, said. “You can’t do it under the current scheduling… This is on us. It shouldn’t have taken so long to get to this point.”
It’s not clear whether the GOP-controlled Senate will take up the measure with the limited time it has left before the end of the current Congress—but if it were to go to the floor, it stands to reason that it would similarly enjoy bipartisan support.
As the proposal was originally drafted, it would have made it so researchers could access marijuana from additional federally approved private manufacturers. But in September, an amendment in the nature of a substitute was approved in committee includes a component expanding scientists’ access to cannabis products from state-legal dispensaries.
For half a century, researchers have only been able to study marijuana grown at a single federally approved facility at the University of Mississippi, but they have complained that it is difficult to obtain the product and that it is of low quality. Indeed, one study showed that the government cannabis is more similar to hemp than to the marijuana that consumers actually use in the real world.
“Unfortunately, that [federally produced] marijuana is chemically distinct from what is commercially available from state-legal dispensaries such as in my home state of Oregon,” Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), the ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said. “What does that mean? Well, it means that we have little to no data on the actual health impacts of products in states that have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational use.”
“We need research that reflects the reality of what’s on the market,” he said.
The panel’s chairman, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), said that “American researchers seeking to study [marijuana products] widely available and used by consumers in the states and territories face restrictions and numerous hurdles created by U.S. federal policy.”