In a historic move, Congress passed a medical cannabis research bill. On Wednesday November 16th, the United States Senate approved the House-passed bill, making it the first piece of standalone cannabis reform legislation ever to be sent to the President’s desk.

Congress Shows Bipartisan Support for Cannabis Research

The Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act has bipartisan backing in Congress. Sponsored by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Andy Harris (R-MD), it also surprisingly received support from Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), a longtime opponent to cannabis legislation. (Grassley was the sole “No” vote in the Senate on the 2018 Farm Bill’s legalization of industrial hemp.)

Interestingly, the Expansion Act’s sponsors are diametrically opposed on broader cannabis reform policy, with Feinstein having a track record of blocking marijuana-related legislation. However, the Senator noted that she couldn’t ignore the possibilities that research might bring. In a press release following the vote, she said, “There is substantial evidence that marijuana-derived medications can and are providing major health benefits. Our bill will make it easier to study how these medications can treat various conditions, resulting in more patients being able to easily access safe medications.”

Despite his general objections to cannabis, Grassley asserted that he favored the bill for the safety of his constituents. He claimed that many Iowans “are desperately in search of treatment options for conditions like child epilepsy,” but resorted to using “untested, unregulated derivatives of the marijuana plant… [Medical cannabis] research is a critical step toward ensuring safe and effective therapies are also consistently regulated like any other prescription drug.”

What Is The Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act?

Under the Expansion Act, scientists will have easier access to conduct medical cannabis research. Universities, as well as private companies such as pharmaceutical firms, will be allowed to acquire U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) licenses to grow and handle cannabis for scientific purposes. Doctors will also be protected through the legislation to discuss the benefits of using cannabis with their patients.

In addition to facilitating scientists’ research, the bill will instruct the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate “the therapeutic potential of marijuana” while also studying how cannabis affects adolescent brains and driving ability.

Initially passed by the House of Representatives in July, the Expansion Act was set to be approved in the Senate in September through an expedited process known as unanimous consent. Progress was halted by Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), who objected to the process on the grounds that it was “premature.” Unanimous consent involves having both the Senate majority and minority leaders agreeing to advance the legislation without a roll call vote, giving all members a limited amount of time to register objections before moving ahead with a request for approval on the floor. After a few weeks of Senate recess and preparation for the midterm elections, the hold on the bill was finally pulled on November 15th, and a landmark decision followed.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Cannabis Reform

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who is continuing “productive talks” around broader marijuana reform legislation including his Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, was an enthusiastic proponent of the Expansion Act’s passage. “[It] would eliminate the red tape that hinders cannabis research, opening the door for new innovative treatments derived from cannabis,” he said. “If you’re one of the millions of Americans who deals with conditions like Parkison’s or epilepsy or post-traumatic stress, or any number of other conditions, cannabis might hold promising new options for managing these diseases.”

“We need to do the research first,” Schumer continued. “And the federal government, sadly, has been woefully behind the times on this front. This bill will help fix that.”

Cannabis Research Challenges: Will Biden’s Directive Change the Game?

The Expansion Act’s passage in Congress comes just weeks after President Joseph Biden issued a mass pardon for people with simple-possession cannabis charges (on the federal level only, a decision which has been controversial). During that announcement, the President also directed the Department of Health and Human Services to begin a review of cannabis research and issue a new recommendation to the Department of Justice on the plant’s status under the Controlled Substances Act, with an eye toward potentially rescheduling or descheduling. While campaigning for the presidency, Biden stated that he believes cannabis must be made easier to study.

Currently, cannabis remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, classified as “having no medical benefit and a high propensity to addiction.” However, numerous pieces of evidence have come to light proving that untrue, with research and thousands of anecdotes from patients nationwide showing the plant’s effectiveness as treatment for several medical conditions.

Because cannabis is a Schedule I substance, however, it is very difficult to research. Scientists need to get approval from multiple agencies to conduct studies, which can sometimes take years. And until recently, they were only allowed to use cannabis grown by the University of Mississippi — which more closely resembled the weed available on the street in the 1970s, rather than modern-day dispensary products.

Beginning in 2021, the DEA awarded cultivation-for-research “bulk manufacturing” licenses to six other entities, with a seventh granted in August 2022 to the Maine-based cannabis pharmaceutical business Maridose.

Critics, including prominent researchers, have long said that the supply of marijuana available for research is inadequate: It’s low potency and low quality, unlike most commercial cannabis, and there isn’t enough of it. If the Expansion Act is enacted properly, it will help cultivators, scientists, and researchers throughout the nation overcome these hurdles.

What’s Next for Federal Cannabis Reform?

Both politicians and cannabis advocates alike see the Expansion Act’s passage in Congress as a sign of the country’s changing attitudes toward legalization.

“I hope that after passing this bill, the Senate can make progress on other cannabis legislation too,” Schumer posited, adding, ““We are going to try very, very hard to get it done.”

Other bills currently under consideration in Congress include the MORE Act, Schumer’s Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, the PREPARE Act, and the SAFE Banking Act. The latter would prohibit federal financial regulators from punishing banks that do business with state-legal cannabis operations. This year, both the MORE Act and SAFE Banking Act have passed the House, but stalled in the Senate, although the SAFE Banking Act has 42 active co-sponsors at the time of this writing.

Will President Biden sign the Expansion Act? Given his calls for more research, it seems likely. And there’s no telling what brave new worlds might open to cannabis next.

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