Only a small number of individuals and organizations have taken up the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) request for public input on its proposed rule change to allow expanded marijuana cultivation for scientific research.

With the May 22 deadline for public feedback looming, the DEA proposal had garnered just 131 comments as of May 19. For comparison, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) sought public input on its proposed changes to hemp regulations last year, and received more than 4,600 comments.

The DEA is proposing a radical overhaul to federal rules, which would make it solely responsible for research-grade marijuana production and distribution, in response to long-standing requests from scientists for expanded access to the plant for research purposes. Currently, there is only one federally authorized grow site in the country at the University of Mississippi, but it cannot meet the demands of researchers in terms of product volume or quality.

In 2016, the DEA said it would authorize more cannabis growers to meet this demand. But four years and dozens of applications from research institutions later, nothing has happened. The impasse led the Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) to file a lawsuit last year against the DEA alleging the agency was failing to carry out its functions. The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled the DEA had fulfilled its requirements and dismissed the lawsuit, but ordered the agency to respond to the SRI’s legal challenge within 30 days. The DEA then announced it needed time to develop new rules in order to approve the pending applications. Last month, the agency finally released the proposed rule change for which it is now soliciting public opinion.

The SRI wasn’t done yet though. It filed another lawsuit alongside a document disclosure request under the Freedom of Information Act. The SRI’s legal team believed an unreleased Department of Justice (DOJ) memo was the reason behind the DEA’s inaction. Under a court settlement, the DOJ published a 2018 Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memo earlier this month which advised that the DEA is in violation of international treaties outlining how signatory countries must handle controlled substances such as cannabis.

In particular, the OLC memo determined that in order to comply with international drug treaties, there must be only one government agency responsible for the production and distribution of marijuana. But for the past 50 years, the DEA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) have shared this responsibility. Under current regulations, the DEA authorizes scientists to obtain cannabis for research purposes from the University of Mississippi, which is managed by NIDA. This is why the DEA is proposing changes to the rules which would make it the sole agency responsible for research-grade marijuana.

Many researchers welcome the DEA’s action as a sign that expanded access to research-grade marijuana is finally on its way. As always though, the devil is in the detail, and some influential voices within the cannabis reform movement have made themselves heard during the DEA’s public comment period on its proposed rule change.

“While NORML has long supported facilitating and expanding domestic clinical research efforts, we do not believe that these proposed rules, if enacted, will achieve this outcome,” a statement from the cannabis reform organization reads. “Rather, we believe that the adoption of these rules may further stonewall efforts to advance our scientific understanding of cannabis by unduly expanding the DEA’s authority and control over decisions that ought to be left up to health experts and scientists.”

NORML goes on to argue that an alternative to authorizing new centralized cannabis growers under the DEA already exists.

“NORML opposes the DEA’s proposed rules and, instead, proposes a more practical alternative to facilitate clinical cannabis research in the United States,” the comment continues. “Rather than compelling scientists to access marijuana products of questionable quality manufactured by a limited number of federally licensed producers, NORML believes that federal regulators should allow investigators to access the cannabis that is currently being produced by the multitude of state-sanctioned growers and retailers throughout the country.”

A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers as well as several federal agencies have urged the DEA to allow scientists to source research-grade cannabis from state-legal marijuana businesses. But under the DEA’s proposed rule changes, an application to grow marijuana for research purposes can be denied on the basis of having violated the federal Controlled Substance Act. This could, therefore, exclude all marijuana cultivators and dispensaries who have participated in a state-legal industry.

The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) commented that it is not appropriate for a federal law enforcement agency to also govern the production and distribution of research-grade marijuana. The NCIA also cited the agency’s poor record on the issue of cannabis research.

“It is painfully clear that the DEA is either unable or unwilling to meet the increasing demand for cannabis research from voters, policymakers, and the scientific community,” said Aaron Smith, executive director of the NCIA.

“By continuing to make this agency the gatekeeper for studies and research production, we are doing a disservice to the nation at a time when we need as much health-related information as possible. Federal agencies should be actively facilitating research that could reveal more about the medical benefits of cannabis, not hiding behind outdated policies to delay or discourage the pursuit of knowledge,” he added.

If you want to add your voice to the discussion on the DEA’s proposed rule changes, you can do so here but you need to be quick. The deadline is May 22, 2020.

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