Believe it or not, the Drug Enforcement Agency is doing something right.
Despite the DEA’s ghastly track record of strictly upheld prohibition, in recent years, cries from researchers desperate to work with quality cannabis in their studies have grown in volume as other countries continue to outpace the U.S. in studying the plant. Even domestically, studies of other Schedule I substances like MDMA and psilocybin are progressing in a manner that cannabis research has been unable to match — until now.
In May, the federal government announced it was changing course by lifting a restriction in place for over 50 years requiring all cannabis for research to be grown at a facility located at the University of Mississippi in contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Established in 1968, the quality of NIDA’s Mississippi grow has repeatedly come under fire from researchers like Dr. Sue Sisley, president of the Scottsdale Research Institute. Speaking with NPR, Sisley described the cannabis material she received from NIDA as an “anemic greenish powder” and stressed her concern that studies like her own be afforded access to the same top-quality cannabis readily available in state-licensed dispensaries.
Additionally, there are also researchers eager to study other product types, from edibles and concentrates to the emerging market for items offering CBD and THC together in various ratios. They too have been stymied by only having access to the flower grown by NIDA in a state that does not offer close to ideal conditions for the cultivation of cannabis.
For this reason, in 2001, plant biologist Dr. Lyle Craker become the first to apply for a license to cultivate his own cannabis for research. After being mired in a years’ long series of delays orchestrated by the DEA, officials seemed to suggest they were open to a policy change in 2016. Unfortunately, no speedy resolution resulted, leading Craker and a group of his peers to sue the federal government over the issue in December 2020.
That brings us back to last May, when the DEA finally got around to conditionally approving the applications of several companies seeking to grow cannabis for research. Now, over eight months later, two of those companies — Groff North America Hemplex and the Biopharmaceutical Research Company (BRC) — appear to have leaped the final hurdles and begun cultivation efforts.
Per Marijuana Moment, a representative for BRC told the outlet that they had completed their first harvest in November and are now working on a second batch of cannabis crops under their licensure from the DEA. Groff separately confirmed that they also recently completed their initial harvest under a similar arrangement.
“The DEA granted us everything we asked for,” BRC’s Hodgin said. “I think that what you saw over the past year, with respect to the DEA increasing the production quotas of controlled substances that includes cannabis, that regulatory action is directly, positively affecting the producers like us.”
If these policy changes do indeed reflect a sustained intention by the DEA to be more supportive of research, that’s literally a win for everyone. And even better, there is actually some compelling evidence to support hopes for the future, including testimony given by the DEA and NIDA at a December hearing of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee pledging support for a White House proposal that would streamline the research process for working with Schedule I substances.
In retrospect, this development may arguably be viewed as the seismic moment that opened the floodgates for quality domestic scientific cannabis research — even if we won’t get the payoff of these efforts for a while yet.
“This is a momentous decision,” Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), underscored to NPR in discussing the DEA’s reversal last May. “This is the last political obstruction of research with Schedule 1 drugs.”
If so, then now perhaps the healing can finally begin.