The Drug Enforcement Agency is proposing that 30% more marijuana be grown in 2020 as interest in federally supported research has reached “unprecedented” levels.
“Over the last two years, the total number of individuals registered by DEA to conduct research with marijuana … has increased by more than 40%, from 384 in January 2017 to 542 in January 2019,” the agency said in a news release.
The news came just a couple of weeks after the DEA announced the intended expansion of federally authorized research.
Growers have been applying for the research program since applications opened under the Obama administration in 2016. In response to a lawsuit filed by one of the applicants because of the long delay in responding to applications, the DEA agreed to move forward on reviewing applications but said more regulations would be proposed.
“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.
In Oklahoma, legislation enacted in 2019 implements state-licensed research, with licenses available by early 2020, according to the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority. According to the DEA, however, researchers licensed in states with legal marijuana industries are automatically disqualified from the federal program.
Other federal agencies are noting the importance of expanding research opportunities for cannabis.
In a response to an inquiry from U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration said in late August that cannabis researchers should be able to obtain marijuana “from state-authorized dispensaries.”
“A larger body of rigorous research, including on cannabis and cannabinoid products that are already in use or that could be developed into FDA-approved medications, is key to furthering our understanding of their potential medical benefits and risks,” the letter to Schatz from the federal agencies said, adding that there are “a variety of barriers to conducting research on cannabis and cannabinoids.”
Under federal law, marijuana remains illegal, but the government historically has permitted cannabis research. The process requires researchers to get several approvals from multiple federal agencies. Once those hurdles are cleared, researchers can get the cannabis for their studies from just one place.
For decades, the University of Mississippi has been the only legal source of cannabis for U.S. research, but acquiring marijuana from that program can be a difficult and lengthy process, and the quality and potency is much lower than what most patients and recreational users can find.
“Current federal laws interfere with research, prevent federal regulatory agencies from establishing safety guidelines, discourage states from regulating cannabis, and make it more difficult for state-legal cannabis businesses to displace the illicit market,” Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said in a statement after news about deaths linked to marijuana vaping.
Chip Paul, who was among advocates pushing Oklahoma’s vote to approve medical marijuana, said that despite three years of inaction, the DEA’s announcement is “really good for science.”
Paul’s Oklahoma company GnuPharma is involved with research, development and manufacturing related to plant-based modulation of the endocannabinoid system. He said applicants for federally approved cannabis research are likely saying “we won.”
A member of the University of Mississippi program serves as GnuPharma's science adviser. Paul said the expansion of research facilities may help that program move beyond the one cannabis strain it has studied, with what he considers impressive consistency, since 1968.
A federal appeals court recently ruled to leave open a case brought by cannabis patients and advocates that challenges the federal designation of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance.
Those interested in commenting on the DEA’s proposed increase in marijuana production may do so through 11:59 p.m. Oct. 10 at regulations.gov.