Trump DEA to move forward on new marijuana grower applications

The Trump administration on Monday announced it will begin taking steps to expand the number of federally approved marijuana growers for scientific and medical research purposes.

In a Federal Register notice set to be published Tuesday, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said it will need to develop new regulations before accepting any new grower applications.

The new rules will help ensure DEA can evaluate the applications under the applicable legal standard and conform the program to relevant laws, the agency said.

“DEA is making progress in the program to register additional marijuana growers for federally authorized research, and will work with other relevant federal agencies to expedite the necessary next steps,” DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon said in a statement. 

“We support additional research into marijuana and its components, and we believe registering more growers will result in researchers having access to a wider variety for study,” Dhillon said.

The DEA in 2016 first announced it would consider granting additional licenses for marijuana growers, in order to increase the supply of research-grade cannabis. The agency has since received 33 submissions, which it called “unprecedented.”

However, none of the applications have been approved. Currently, the only source of research-grade marijuana is from a facility at the University of Mississippi. Researchers and lawmakers from both parties have said the single source of federally approved marijuana is too limiting.

There have also been concerns raised that the marijuana grown at the Mississippi facility is chemically closer to hemp than to the marijuana available in commercial markets in states that have legalized it. 

DEA’s announcement comes just days before a federal court-imposed deadline for the agency to respond to a lawsuit about its inaction on approving more growers. 

The lawsuit from the Arizona-based Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) asked a federal court to force the agency to explain why it wasn’t approving new applications. SRI also called the federal marijuana “sub-par.”

The lawsuit described a product "tainted with extraneous material like stick and seeds, and many samples were moldy," saying it was "not suited for any clinical trials, let alone the ones SRI was doing."

The company applied to grow marijuana to study its effects on treating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug, which means it has a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical value. That designation puts significant limitations on its use for medical and scientific research.

DEA in the notice Monday said it believes approving additional growers will make additional strains of marijuana available to researchers. 

“This should facilitate research, advance scientific understanding about the effects of marihuana, and potentially aid in the development of safe and effective drug products that may be approved for marketing by the Food and Drug Administration,” the agency said.

The notice also clarified that hemp is no longer considered marijuana, and growers do not need to register with the federal government anymore, since hemp cultivation was legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill.