Thirty members of Congress, led by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), H. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell on Tuesday demanding an end to the federal monopoly on marijuana research so that more studies can be done by scientists around the nation.
"We write to express our support for increasing scientific research on the therapeutic risks and benefits of marijuana," the letter reads. "We ask that you take measures to ensure that any non-National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded researcher who has acquired necessary Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Institutional Review Board (IRB), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and appropriate state and local authority approval be able to access marijuana for research at-cost without further review." (Read the full text of the letter below.)
The letter comes about two weeks after the House voted to block the Drug Enforcement Administration from using funds to go after medical marijuana operations that are legal under state laws, a measure that Rohrabacher sponsored.
And just last week, a scathing joint report from the Drug Policy Alliance and and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies blasted the DEA, arguing that the agency has repeatedly failed to act in a timely fashion when faced with petitions to reschedule marijuana.
The drug is currently illegal under federal law, and remains classified as a Schedule I substance, a designation the DEA reserves for the "most dangerous" drugs with "no currently accepted medical use." Schedule I drugs, which include substances like heroin and LSD, cannot receive federal funding for research. On three separate occasions -- in 1973, 1995 and 2002 -- the DEA took years to make a final decision about a rescheduling petition, and in two of those cases the DEA was sued multiple times to force a decision.
Last week's report criticized the DEA for overruling its own officials charged with determining how illicit substances should be scheduled. It also accused the agency of creating a "regulatory Catch-22" by arguing there is not enough scientific evidence to support rescheduling marijuana -- while simultaneously impeding the research that would produce such evidence.
"Two weeks ago, we took a very important vote in the House to stop the DEA from interfering in states' medical marijuana programs," Blumenauer said in a statement Tuesday. "Now we need the Administration to stop targeting marijuana above and beyond other drugs when it comes to research. By increasing access for scientists who are conducting studies, we end the Catch-22 of opponents claiming they can't support medical marijuana because there's not enough research, but blocking research because they don't support medical marijuana."
The U.S. government grows marijuana for research purposes at the University of Mississippi in the only federally legal marijuana garden in the U.S. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) oversees the cultivation, production and distribution of these crops -- a process through which the only federally-sanctioned marijuana studies are approved.
Federal authorities have long been accused of only funding marijuana research that focuses on the potential negative effects of the drug. Since 2003, more than 500 grants for marijuana-related studies have received federal approval, with a marked upswing in recent years, according to McClatchy. Only 22 grants were approved in 2003 for cannabis research, totaling $6 million, but in 2012, 69 grants were approved for a total of over $30 million.
Despite these numbers, NIDA has reportedly conducted only about 30 studies to date on the potential benefits of marijuana, according to The Hill.
Currently, 22 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use. Eight other states -- Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin -- have legalized CBD oil, a non-psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that is frequently used to treat epilepsy, for limited medical use or for research purposes.
A number of studies in recent years have shown the medical potential of cannabis. Purified forms may attack some forms of aggressive cancer. Marijuana use has also been tied to better blood sugar control and may help slow the spread of HIV. One study found that legalization of the plant for medical purposes may even lead to lower suicide rates.
Read the full letter below:
Dear Secretary Burwell,
We write to express our support for increasing scientific research on the therapeutic risks and benefits of marijuana. We ask that you take measures to ensure that any non-National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded researcher who has acquired necessary Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Institutional Review Board (IRB), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and appropriate state and local authority approval be able to access marijuana for research at-cost without further review.
Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing for the use of medical marijuana. Over one million Americans currently use medical marijuana at the recommendation of their physician. There is overwhelming anecdotal evidence from patients, their family members, and their doctors of the therapeutic benefits of marijuana for those suffering from cancer, epilepsy, seizures, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, glaucoma, anxiety, chronic pain, and more.
We believe the widespread use of medical marijuana should necessitate research into what specific relief it offers and how it can best be delivered for different people and different conditions. Yet, the scientific research clearly documenting these benefits has often been hampered by federal barriers.
Researchers seeking to develop prescription drugs in the United States must go through FDA and IRB approval processes. To conduct research using Schedule I substances such as marijuana, LSD, psilocybin and MDMA, researchers must also seek a DEA registration, as well as any required state and local licenses. The review process required to gain these approvals is robust and ensures that researchers are weighing the risks as well as the possible benefits of their potential medications.
Only with marijuana, and no other Schedule I substances, is there an additional Public Health Service review for non NIH-funded protocols, established in the May 21, 1999, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) "Guidance on Procedures for the Provision of Marijuana for Medical Research." This review process grants access to the only source of marijuana that can be legally used for research - grown by the University of Mississippi under contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
In light of the fact that substances like opioids and barbiturates have been researched and developed for human use, it would seem that we should investigate the legitimate medical uses of marijuana. We request that you review and revise the HHS Guidance to eliminate what we believe to be an unnecessary additional review process. NIDA should provide marijuana at-cost to all non-NIH funded marijuana research protocols that have successfully obtained necessary FDA, DEA, IRB and appropriate state and local authority approval.
Considering the number of states with medical marijuana laws and the number of patients who use marijuana medicinally in the United States, it is clear that we need more scientific information about the therapeutic risks and benefits of marijuana.
Thank you for your attention to this request, and we look forward to your response.