Advocates doubt Trump DEA will ease rules on marijuana research

Advocates doubt Trump DEA will ease rules on marijuana research
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The Trump administration gave new hope to marijuana researchers when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) appeared to open the door for new applications for federally approved marijuana growers.

While 33 states have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes, federal research is extremely restricted. The administration’s announcement last week that it would expand the number of marijuana growers signaled a positive change after years of agency inaction and delay.

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“We need to do as much research as possible, and we welcome the doors being open,” said Morgan Fox, spokesman for the National Cannabis Industry Association.

Still, some cannabis advocates and industry experts said they remain skeptical of the administration’s motives and have accused officials of imposing different bureaucratic delays without any intention to act.

“It’s a notable procedural step,” said Terry Holt, spokesman for the National Cannabis Roundtable, a cannabis reform lobbying group. “But many folks who have been following the issue can be excused if they are a bit frustrated.”

Advocates said they have been disappointed in recent years by the Justice Department’s unwillingness to act on dozens of applications submitted to grow marijuana for federal research. 

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 but has not evaluated any of them.

That delay prompted a lawsuit from the Arizona-based Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI), which was trying to study the effects of marijuana on treating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

The company asked a federal court to force the DEA to explain why it wasn’t approving new applications. 

In a subsequent court filing, the DEA said its intent to publish a new rule makes the lawsuit invalid.

Attorneys for the SRI and lead researcher Dr. Sue Sisley, however, said until a new application for marijuana growers is approved, the DEA will continue to be in violation of the law.

“We are cautiously optimistic,” said Matt Zorn. “But ... we went to court because they were violating the statute. This course of action ... [is] substituting one violation with another,” Zorn said.

Shane Pennington, another attorney representing the SRI and Sisley, said the DEA has resisted pressure to speed up application reviews from advocacy groups, members of Congress from both parties and even other members of the Trump administration. 

Advocates said supportive comments from Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrImpeachment tests Barr-Trump relationship Democratic senators seek documents on Trump's alleged call for Barr press conference The Hill's Morning Report — Bloomberg news shakes up 2020 race MORE as well represent a massive change from his predecessor at the Department of Justice, Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump attends football game with Jeff Sessions' Alabama Senate race opponent Bradley Byrne Impeachment tests Barr-Trump relationship Tide, Tigers and Trump: President hopes for home-field advantage in Alabama MORE, who reportedly encouraged a crackdown on medical marijuana research.   

Advocates say they will keep up pressure to ensure the DEA follows through.

Pennington said the announcement should make it harder for the agency “to drag its heels.” 

“The agency could still ignore its obligations. But now it’s going to be harder and harder to convince a court that what [the agency] doing is in any way shape or form lawful,” Pennington said. “We count that as a victory, but don’t want to overstate it, and don’t want to guarantee DEA is a different entity than two weeks ago.”

But others are more cautious there will be changes.

John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the cannabis industry should not be celebrating the DEA announcement. 

“DEA is a law enforcement entity and not a fan of any type of cannabis reform,” Hudak said. “I think what this is going to do is buy the DEA quite a bit more time to drag its feet.”  

In the announcement, the DEA said it first needs to write new regulations in order to evaluate the “unprecedented” number of applications the agency has received but did not say what was wrong with the existing regulations from 2016. 

Hudak said the DEA has had more than three years to evaluate the security measures of applicants, and they have had ample time to publish an advisory or rulemaking regarding security for DEA-approved growers. 

“They failed to do that. That lacks the honesty and integrity you’d expect from a regulatory system,” Hudak said.

“Maybe they will move forward in an expeditious and speedy way, but they have certainly positioned themselves not to,” he added.

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Industry advocates say changes are long overdue.

A facility at the University of Mississippi has been the sole grower of federally approved marijuana since 1968. 

Researchers and lawmakers from both parties have said the single source is too limiting, but experts said officials across multiple administrations have not provided an adequate reason why marijuana research is so restricted. 

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

The DEA said it believes approving additional growers will make additional strains of marijuana available to researchers. 

“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,” DEA acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon said in a statement.

But Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the agency’s track record shows they have no intention of moving forward.

“We have no timetable, or any idea in the future when they will adopt [the new] rules,” Armentano said. And once the regulations are adopted, the agency still will need to look at dozens of applications.

“It’s clear DEA is not an honest broker in this situation,” Armentano said. “It’s Lucy with the football.”