A comprehensive bipartisan bill that would allow scientists to source marijuana from state-legal dispensaries, among other provisions to facilitate research on the plant, has cleared a House committee.

The Medical Cannabis Research (MCR) Act, approved by the Energy and Commerce Committee, has two main functions.

First, it would simplify the registration process by removing a lot of the bureaucracy facing scientists who want to research cannabis. Namely, the bill would reduce waiting times for approval, keep security requirements to a minimum and remove additional protocols currently in place which slow the process down.

The bill’s second function is to make more research-grade cannabis available to scientists. Currently, there’s only one federally authorized grow facility in the country, located at the University of Mississippi. Aside from being limited in supply, the marijuana cultivated there is routinely criticized as resembling hemp more than the cannabis typically found in state-legal dispensaries. Scientists complain this invalidates any conclusions that can be drawn from the study of such poor quality marijuana.

The first version of the MCR Act only provided for scientists to source research-grade marijuana from additional cannabis manufacturers, subject to federal approval. Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) proposed an amendment that would allow scientists to access cannabis from state-legal dispensaries under certain conditions. This was then approved via a voice vote.

“I believe there are signs that medical marijuana can be beneficial when used the proper setting for treatment of certain medical conditions,” Griffith said. “But the truth is, we don’t really have enough research and we don’t really know what it’s about.”

Griffith commended the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for “their technical assistance in developing this amendment which adds clarity to the bill’s processes and definitions.”

The new legislation follows a separate bill passed by the House in July that would allow scientists to source cannabis for research purposes from licensed dispensaries. The measure is part of a much broader 2,000 page infrastructure bill that would also permit interstate distribution of cannabis, even to scientists in states that haven’t legalized marijuana.

The proposed MCR Act comes after years of legal wrangling between the DEA and scientists over expanded access to marijuana for research purposes. In 2016, the Obama administration lifted certain restrictions and the DEA then said it would move to license additional growers. The DEA’s subsequent inaction led a coalition of scientists to start a lawsuit against the agency. In the meantime, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers as well as several federal agencies have urged the DEA to allow researchers to source cannabis from state-legal dispensaries. The scientists’ case against the DEA was later dismissed when the agency announced its proposed new rules to expand researchers’ access to marijuana. The DEA claimed the delay in drawing up the new rules was to ensure the United States kept its obligations under international drug conventions.

After four years of DEA promises, scientists still await approval to undertake research on marijuana sourced from a grower other than the University of Mississippi. A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers said the continuing delays are harming people’s health and job prospects at a time when the country is reeling from the effects of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Rather than compelling scientists to access marijuana products of questionable quality manufactured by a limited number of federally licensed producers, federal regulators should allow investigators to access the cannabis and cannabis-infused products that are currently being produced in the legal marketplace by the multitude of state-sanctioned growers and retailers,” wrote NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano in a press release.

“Doing so will not only facilitate and expedite clinical cannabis research in the United States and provide important data regarding the safety and efficacy of real-world products, but it will also bring about a long overdue end to decades of DEA stonewalling and interference with respect to the advancement of our scientific understanding of the cannabis plant,” he added.

The MCR Act is now set for a full vote on the House floor but it remains unclear when this would happen.

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