AG Sessions blocks progress on medical cannabis research

A thriving marijuana plant is seen at a grow operation in Denver, Colorado December 31, 2013. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo - RTSJ4EC

Last week, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions a question about cannabis. It wasn’t about legalization or enforcement. It was about science. Sen. Hatch asked the Attorney General for a status update on applications to grow cannabis for federally-approved medical and scientific research. The Attorney General offered a weak response that highlighted his own biases on the issue, a division of opinion between him and the president he serves, and a federal government effort to stand in the way of the free conduct of research.

For decades, cannabis used in federally-approved medical and/or scientific research was required to be grown at and purchased from a farm at the University of Mississippi. Why Ole Miss? Because the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) required that the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) administer a single contract for the cultivation and procurement of research-grade cannabis.

In August 2016, however, DEA relaxed its rules, opening the doors for other facilities to apply to the federal government to grow research-grade cannabis. For years, there has been an effort to petition the government to expand the supply of such cannabis, as researchers and experts complain about not only the quantity of cannabis grown for research purposes, but also its quality and the diverse array of potency, chemical composition (cannabinoid profiles), and vehicles of consumption (whole flower, vaporizers, oils, tinctures, etc.).

During this time, medical research has suffered at precisely the worst moment. There is growing evidence of cannabis’ medical value for a variety of ailments. Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a report that acknowledged evidence of medical efficacy. All the while, a significant majority of Americans live in states that have reformed laws to allow medical cannabis to be grown and used, as public support for those reforms has eclipsed 80 percent nationally.

In addition, recent research has suggested that cannabis may have medical value in dealing with the opioid epidemic and caring for our wounded warriors who have PTSD and other ailments.

There should be more research into cannabis’ medical efficacy, and the Attorney General of the United States needs to stop allowing his own ideological biases from preventing the free and open conduct of research. Right now, there are 26 additional research facilities that have applied to grow research grade cannabis. The Attorney General’s response to Sen. Hatch’s question about these applications was, “So I think it would be healthy to have some more competition in the supply, but I don’t—I’m sure we don’t need 26 new suppliers.”

Nonsense, Mr. Attorney General.

Simply because there are 26 applications does not mean the Justice Department has to approve 26 applications. DEA, the agency charged with initially evaluating these applications, surely evaluated each application for quality, safety, security, necessity, and capacity, among other criteria. Experts have evaluated these applications, and the Attorney General should let those experts make the determinations. DEA and NIDA are sufficiently equipped to evaluate the protocols of each applicant, as they have been administering and overseeing the current producer for decades. In fact, the career officials at those agencies are better positioned to make those decisions than an Alabama Senator who just got a political promotion.

The Attorney General suggested in his testimony that it is not the applications or even DEA that are holding up the process. It is he who is delaying the ability of researchers to conduct high quality research with the best supply possible. The Attorney General noted, “I have raised questions about how many” (new facilities there should be). Instead of talking about his questions, the Attorney General should talk about the system he is putting in place.

In its announcement opening the door for applicants to grow cannabis for research, DEA specified how the quantity of suppliers would be decided: facilities would be approved which are “necessary to provide an adequate and uninterrupted supply of cannabis.” In his testimony, the Attorney General said nothing about the process for achieving the level of supply researchers need. It’s not only that each application must be evaluated on its own merits. They will collectively be part of a system that must provide a reliable supply—the core problem DEA sought to address in ending the monopoly and one that merits a more informed analysis.

It’s true that overseeing the new facilities will increase DEA’s workload, but again, it’s a task with which they have decades of experience. Setting up a sustainable system for long-term oversight is a typical law enforcement issue that the Attorney General has resources to answer. But if he is motivated to find an optimal solution that’s both operationally feasible and serves the public interest, it wasn’t evident in his testimony.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made clear for decades his absolute aversion to cannabis, its users, the idea of medical value, and any reform. It comes as no surprise that he is politicizing this issue. It is unfortunate that, in the process, he is politicizing much-needed medical research.

This barricade to the free conduct of medical research is even more shocking, as it cuts against President Trump’s views on a variety of related issues.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump expressed his support for medical cannabis, even arguing he knows people who have found relief from it. As president, Mr. Trump has frequently spoken of his support for veterans and his willingness to do all he can to help them. He has also spoken of the need to address the opioid epidemic head-on, appointing a commission to examine the issue and even announcing that he would declare the opioid epidemic an official public health emergency. Expanding research would reflect the president’s policy views. Instead, Mr. Sessions is standing between the White House and its stated policy goals.

Finally, the president and even the Attorney General lament that the Affordable Care Act allows the government to stand between patients and doctors. By politicizing medical cannabis research and by blocking researchers from getting answers to medical questions, the Attorney General is not only complicit in allowing government to stand between doctors and patients, he is leading the charge.

It is time that the Attorney General listens to the experts around him who understand the needs of the medical research community. It is time that the Attorney General gets out of the way of the free conduct of medical research. It is time that the Attorney General stops coming between patients and answers to important medical questions. And if he won’t, the president should find someone who will.