As part of a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure spending bill, Senate lawmakers have given scientists the green light to study cannabis sourced from state-legal dispensaries, instead of having to rely on poor-quality, federal government-approved marijuana. The measure was approved in a 69-30 vote.

The wording of the provision allowing scientists to use retail marijuana in their research is largely the same as that found in the version passed by the House in June. The Senate-approved legislation, however, also instructs states that have legalized cannabis to take steps to educate residents on the dangers of impaired driving.

Specifically, the marijuana research measure compels the transportation secretary to work alongside the attorney general and the secretary of health and human services on a report concerning scientists’ access to commercially-available cannabis in order to study its relationship to impaired driving. The text of the provision says this report must include recommendations for the creation of a central body that would “collect and distribute samples and strains of marijuana for scientific research that includes marijuana and products containing marijuana lawfully available to patients or consumers in a state on a retail basis.”

The report must also look at other “federal statutory and regulatory barriers” to studying cannabis-impaired driving. The research provision makes clear though that scientists living in states where cannabis prohibition remains in place must be allowed to purchase marijuana for research purposes in jurisdictions where it’s legal.

Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) introduced the cannabis research amendment in a Senate committee earlier this year, arguing it is essential to advance our understanding of impaired driving due to marijuana use in order to establish a national standard along the same lines as alcohol.

The section of the bill that encourages states to educate residents on the dangers of impaired driving only applies to those states which have legalized marijuana, to the dismay of advocates who argue cannabis-impaired driving happens irrespective of the plant’s legal status. Some also argue there’s no evidence to suggest that marijuana legalization leads to more impaired driving.

The lack of quality research-grade marijuana, that’s comparable to what consumers purchase in dispensaries, has long been a bugbear of scientists looking to advance our understanding of the plant. Since the 1970s, the only federally-authorized grow site for cannabis in the country is located at the University of Mississippi which is unable to keep up with demand or with the potency of marijuana products available to buy across the country.

The Drug Enforcement Agency has pledged to authorize more growers for years but progress has been slow, to the point where a coalition of scientists filed a lawsuit against the agency for its inaction on the issue. This year, the DEA informed several companies that it’s ready to authorize their status as cannabis manufacturers for research purposes but this has yet to be finalized.

Still, the marijuana research provision in the infrastructure bill could have more profound implications for cannabis research than whether or not the DEA authorizes more growers. That’s because the infrastructure bill ensures scientists study what consumers are actually using and it’s a lot easier to source marijuana from a dispensary than through one of only a few federally-authorized companies, thus lowering a significant barrier to research.

The Senate-approved bill now heads back to the House for further deliberation before making its way to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature.

state marijuana laws