Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) is Congress's most vocal opponent of legal marijuana, having single-handedly spearheaded a provision blocking legal pot shops in the District of Columbia in 2014. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), on the other hand, was recently named Congress's "top legal pot advocate" by Rolling Stone.
As Harris described it in an interview, the bipartisan Medical Marijuana Research Act of 2016 would "cut through the red tape" that currently makes it exceedingly difficult for researchers to obtain and use marijuana in clinical trials. As federal law currently stands, only one facility in Mississippi is allowed to produce marijuana used for research. "Because of this monopoly, research-grade drugs that meet researchers’ specifications often take years to acquire, if they are produced at all," Brookings Institution researchers wrote last year.
Beyond those difficulties, researchers wanting to work with the drug need to have their work approved by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Food and Drug Administration and, in some cases, the National Institutes on Health. Those hurdles, and the amount of time it takes to jump over all of them, deter many researchers from doing work on marijuana. In one typical case, it took a team of scientists seven years to get full approval to conduct research into using marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans.
But the bill sponsored by Harris, Blumenauer, Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) and Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) would allow many more growers to produce marijuana for research. It would also remove levels of federal review for marijuana research projects and specify shorter windows for federal approval of the projects.
Crucially, it would also change the criteria by which the federal government allows marijuana research to proceed. "The federal government must grant an application for [approval] unless it's not in the public interest, rather than assuming it's not," Blumenauer said in an interview. "Reversing that presumption is huge."
Marijuana is currently listed under Schedule 1 of the federal Controlled Substances Act, the most stringent category of regulation. This bill would not change the schedule status of marijuana, but it would essentially create a "carve-out" within Schedule 1 for marijuana research, according to Harris. "Marijuana's actually different from other things in Schedule 1, which are all discrete chemicals," he said in an interview. "The plant is a combination of hundreds of compounds, so it needs to be treated separately from the other drugs in Schedule 1."
In a separate action, the DEA is currently considering whether to keep marijuana in Schedule 1, move it to a lower schedule, or de-schedule it entirely. But Harris says that process doesn't affect his thinking on this bill. "I'm not going to wait for the DEA to figure out what's going on," he said.
John Hudak, who studies marijuana policy at the Brookings Institution, calls the bill "a really creative approach by Congressman Blumenauer and his colleagues to effectively reschedule marijuana without having to reschedule it." He added, "It forces the government to make it easier for qualified legitimate researchers to get access to product and conduct that research."
Marijuana advocates used to tussling with Harris over his opposition to legal weed may be surprised to see him coming out forcefully in support of improved research. But as a doctor himself, Harris says researchers tell him that they can't do their jobs on account of federal red tape.
"It's a Catch-22 that the research is difficult because of the strict rules, and the rules are strict because of the lack of research," he said. His thinking on the drug hasn't changed, he says: "I think medical marijuana should be much more strictly controlled than it is now." But, he adds, "as a physician I would never want to deny a medicine to a patient that has been shown, with scientific rigor, to help them."
"The point is unassailable -- everybody agrees that we need better research" on marijuana, Blumenauer said. The congressmen working on the bill "represent the whole political spectrum, philosophically and in terms of partisanship, in terms of attitudes toward marijuana, from all over the country. I think it's important to make the discussion about drug reform more reasonable and productive."
More from Wonkblog: