“Secret” DEA Memo Explains Cannabis Researcher Woes

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Court-ordered publication of 2018 memo reveals DEA acted in defiance of global laws.

For decades, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has served as the face of U.S. anti-drug efforts. It started with the likes of Harry Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Today, the DEA is arguably the most publicly visible anti-marijuana campaign in the world. The agency’s status as an archrival of cannabis activists is nothing new yet still sadly relevant today.

In 2019, the DEA seized more than four million cannabis plants. The year prior, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a rather scathing assessment of the agency’s marijuana eradication efforts. Heck, it took the DEA until April 2020 to decide that a CBD medication should not be treated in an identical fashion to heroin and LSD.

Though cannabis remains a Class I federally-controlled substance, minimal exceptions have been granted in recent years to researchers. Of those studying the efficacy of cannabis as a medicine on various fronts, one of the most prominent figures in the field is Dr. Sue Sisley of the Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI). 

Sisley, a primary care physician and psychiatrist, told NBC News that she was initially “dubious” when military veterans started relaying to her that consuming cannabis was helping them sleep. They also said it was preventing them from experiencing nightmares. Around 2010, Sisley decided to study cannabis in a proper setting, though it would take until 2016 for her work to get underway. 

It was only then that she got her first look at the cannabis she’d be working with.

Sisley calls the product she receives a  “powdery mishmash of stems, sticks and leaves.”

The sender — the University of Mississippi — has, since 1968, held the distinction of being the only place approved by the DEA to provide marijuana for scientific research. The issue? The cannabis produced by the 12-acre farm is reportedly of terrible quality.

In addition to including the entire plant (as opposed to only buds), marijuana produced by the University of Mississippi tends to test at around 8 percent THC. By comparison, today’s industry standard is approximately 20 percent. Sisley and other researchers argue that they should be working with plants of the caliber available to consumers in legal markets today. 

In hopes of spearheading such an outcome, the SRI filed suit against the DEA.

One focus of their efforts was a supposed “secret” memorandum which, the SRI argued, was directing the DEA to avoid working with additional cannabis manufacturers. Such actions stood in stark contrast to a promise made by the DEA in 2016 that it would be “accepting additional manufacturers to produce research-grade marijuana.”

Instead, no additional manufacturers were approved. In response, the SRI filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suit. The results of their efforts comes in the form of confirmation that yes, a secret memorandum in the form of a Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) document was used as guidance by the DEA for the past two years. 

The “Licensing Marijuana Cultivation in Compliance with the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs” memo directed the DEA to interpret international drug treaties as a means of denying additional cannabis manufacturers a chance to grow alongside the University of Mississippi. The details are a bit of a slog, but in essence, the DEA was breaking international law by not serving as an intermediary between growers and researchers and instead allowing a direct transfer between parties.

By serving as the sole disbursement center for all cannabis destined for approved research across the U.S., the DEA could fall in accordance with international drug laws. These actions are reportedly already in motion, with the DEA unveiling revised plans in March for a system in which they would take an active role in the process. 

Now that the OLC’s memo is firmly in the public’s view, perhaps it can finally serve its intended purpose: providing a blueprint to better quality cannabis for researchers.

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