A new proposed amendment to a bipartisan infrastructure bill on the Senate floor this week would significantly expand federally approved research into marijuana as well as the popular cannabinoid CBD—changes aimed at providing a better understanding of cannabis’s effects and speeding development of new therapies.
As introduced by Senate leaders early this week, the massive legislation already contains a number of cannabis provisions. One would direct federal agencies to create a plan to allow researchers to study cannabis products that consumers are purchasing from state-legal retailers, while another would encourage jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana to educate people about impaired driving.
The new amendment, proposed Wednesday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), would streamline the application process for researchers who want to study cannabis as well as manufacture the plant for research purposes. It’s titled the Cannabidiol and Marihuana Research Expansion Act and has bipartisan support in cosponsors Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Brian Schatz (D-HI), who were added in a handwritten note.
The proposal resembles a standalone Senate bill that Feinstein introduced in February along with Schatz and Grassley. The Senate unanimously passed an identical form of that legislation late last year, but it was not taken up by the House by the end of the session.
Among other changes, the amendment would adjust rules to the application process for institutions seeking federal authorization to study marijuana. The U.S. attorney general would be given a 60-day deadline to either approve a given application or request supplemental information from the applicant. A wider array of institutions would also be eligible to study the drug.
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The amendment would also create an expedited pathway for researchers who request larger quantities of Schedule I drugs, and it would reduce the need for researchers to re-apply for authorization when modifying certain details of their research.
On the patient side, it would clarify that doctors can freely discuss with their patients the potential benefits and harms of cannabis products without violating the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Feinstein’s amendment would also require that the secretary of health and human services, in coordination with other federal agencies, provide a report within one year on various scientific questions around cannabis, such as the potential therapeutic effects of CBD or marijuana, possible impacts of THC on adolescent brain development and cognitive abilities, remaining barriers to research as well as any additional recommendations.
Sponsors have argued that expanding scientific knowledge around cannabis is essential as more patients use the drug for therapeutic purposes and more states legalize it for adult use. Federal prohibition, however, has long stymied research.
“Because of restrictive regulations, we still do not understand exactly how medical marijuana can be used to safely treat a variety of conditions where it may be far more useful than current treatments,” Feinstein said in a press release earlier this year in support of the proposal.
She added that the legislation “would streamline the research process to allow FDA-approved marijuana-derived medications to be used to treat serious medical conditions. Millions may ultimately benefit from a new, safe treatment for conditions like intractable epilepsy once this bill becomes law.”
House lawmakers, for their part, also passed legislation last year to expand cannabis research, but that bill did not advance in the Senate.
It’s not yet clear if or when the Senate will take up Feinstein’s research amendment, which is one of several introduced by lawmakers on Wednesday. Some are expected to receive votes on the Senate floor, while others may not be taken up at all.
Senate leaders, however, are reportedly eager to quickly pass the infrastructure bill and could take a final vote on the full package as soon as the end of this week.
If it passes the chamber, the amended legislation would then need to go back to the House for consideration before heading to President Joe Biden’s desk.
Since the introduction of cannabis research legislation, the federal government has already taken some initial steps to promote research. Most notably, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently notified several companies that it is moving toward approving their applications to become federally authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.
That marks a significant development—and one of the first cannabis-related moves to come out of the Biden administration. But the move still does not free up researchers to access marijuana products from state-legal retailers in the way the new infrastructure bill would encourage.
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