Why Congress should pass the Medical Marijuana Research Act of 2019

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At first glance, it may seem like a strange partnership—one of the most vocal critics of the ever-advancing tide of cannabis legalization and one of legalization’s most ardent advocates—co-sponsoring a cannabis bill together. Dig a bit deeper into the debate, however, and our odd couple makes a bit more sense. We may come from different sides of the issue, but we can agree on one thing—the federal government should not stand in the way of legitimate, scientific medical cannabis research. From pro-legalization advocates, to law enforcement, to the medical and scientific communities, and on down to policymakers, all factions can agree there exists foundational barriers within the current regulatory schema to conduct research and access objective evidence as to the medicinal properties of cannabis. That is why, in 2016, we first introduced the Medical Marijuana Research Act. Now, three years later, it is past time that Congress act on our bill. As we prepare to reintroduce this legislation, we urge our fellow members of Congress to join us and finally take action to remove unnecessary barriers to legitimate medical cannabis research.

As of 2016, 25 states had legalized medical cannabis, and four of those states had legalized cannabis for recreational adult-use. As a result of the 2016 elections, four additional states legalized medical cannabis, and the number of states with adult-use, recreational programs doubled to eight. The 2018 election brought adult-use cannabis to Michigan and medical cannabis to Missouri and Utah. Today, 33 states have medical cannabis programs, and 11 states have recreational, adult-use programs. Put another way, more than two-thirds of Americans are living in states with legal cannabis programs.

While we may disagree about the medical value of cannabis and the various state efforts to legalize cannabis, it is beyond dispute that the barriers to cannabis research inhibit this nation’s ability to both thoroughly evaluate the benefits and risks associated with increased cannabis use and craft responsible policy governing such use.

We have both heard from researchers in our home states about the barriers to research. This includes the overly burdensome registration process, redundant protocol reviews, lack of adequate research material and unnecessarily onerous security requirements. In fact, a 2017 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report found that “research on the health effects of cannabis and cannabinoids has been limited in the United States, leaving patients, health care professionals, and policy makers without the evidence they need to make sound decisions regarding the use of cannabis and cannabinoids. This lack of evidence-based information on the health effects of cannabis and cannabinoids poses a public health risk.” We could not agree more.

The Medical Marijuana Research Act of 2019 will reduce many of the barriers to conducting legitimate medical cannabis research. First, the bill streamlines the burdensome and often duplicative licensure process for researchers seeking to conduct cannabis research, while still maintaining all necessary safeguards against misuse and abuse. Second, it addresses the woefully inadequate, both in quantity and quality, supply of medical grade cannabis available for use in such research. Finally, it requires, within five years (at most) after enactment, a report by the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on the status and results of the then-currently available body of research on cannabis.

It is beyond debate that the tide of marijuana legalization is rising across America. Irrespective of where one falls on the ideological spectrum with respect to further legalization, we can all agree that the American people deserve to know what’s going on with marijuana. The United States leads the world in biomedical research. It is therefore unconscionable that the federal government stands as the chief impediment to legitimate medical research that will ensure American physicians, patients, purchasers, and constituents have access to the information they need to make an informed decision about marijuana. Congress must act. And we must act now. 

Harris represents Maryland’s 1st District. Blumenauer represents Oregon’s 3rd District and is co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.

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