Federal Regulators Testify Before House Subcommittee, Answer Questions Surrounding Lack of Marijuana Research

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United States lawmakers convened Wednesday to discuss the future of federal cannabis legalization and to question leaders from three government agencies tasked with researching, regulating and enforcing America’s drug policies.

The session was hosted by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, and billed as an opportunity to examine six proposed pieces of federal marijuana legislation.

But rather than scrutinizing language in bills such as the MORE Act, which passed a history House Judiciary Committee vote last year, witnesses from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) were mostly pressed on the need for robust medical marijuana research.

On hand to answer questions about the effects of marijuana, the efficacy of products containing cannabidiol (CBD), and the possible medical benefits of cannabis were Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIDA, Dr. Douglas Throckmorton, the FDA’s deputy director for regulatory programs at the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, and DEA senior policy advisory Matthew Straight.

In her opening address, chairwoman Anna Eshoo (D-CA) explained the quagmire that U.S. cannabis researchers find themselves in as a result of marijuana’s Schedule I classification as part of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

Under the CSA, Schedule I drugs – which include heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, among others -- have no “accepted medical use.”

That means cannabis is restricted from “legitimate medical research,” according to Eshoo, and scientists who want to study the plant “must seek approval from three federal agencies -- the NIH, the FDA, and the DEA.”

However, scientists who gain federal approval are only allowed to research cannabis grown at a “government-authorized farm at the University of Mississippi,” according to Eshoo.

The rub? Cannabis grown at that facility “lacks the properties and potency of commercially-available cannabis and leads to inadequate research,” she said.

“Researchers are in a catch-22,” Eshoo noted. “They can’t conduct cannabis research until they show cannabis has a medical use, but they can’t show cannabis has a medical use until they can conduct research.”

Despite the hurdles, the FDA has managed to approve three medical products containing marijuana’s primary active compounds – THC and CBD – while simultaneously rescheduling Marinol and Syndros as Schedule III drugs as well as Epidiolex as a Schedule V drug.

“So how can cannabis be Schedule I and considered to have no accepted medical use – because that’s part of Schedule I – but both of its active ingredients can be considered to have medical use,” Eshoo questioned?

Throckmorton suggested that those two compounds, when used separately, are “safe and effective for intended uses.”

Throughout the three-hour long hearing, the witnesses were repeatedly questioned about the current framework for studying cannabis, and whether or not researchers should have greater access to a wider array of marijuana products currently being sold to U.S. consumers.

All three regulators agreed that more medical research was needed on the therapeutic effects and health consequences of cannabis, and that the cannabis being grown at the University of Mississippi is not adequate for medical research. They also agreed that researchers should have access to products from the marketplace.

“I think it’s great that we have all three witnesses agree that we need medical research into the effects of hemp, CBD or marijuana products,” said Kurt Schrader (D-OR). “The sad part is that were not testing the right stuff. I fail to understand – with all due respect Mr. Straight – why we have one bloody facility in an artificial environment in Mississippi, that is really the sole nexus for research and analysis of CBD products.”

Schrader said products being sold at retail dispensaries should be tested and researched so that American consumers know what they are “being exposed to or hopefully benefiting from.”

“The idea that we are using a specific facility that does not mirror what people are actually ingesting, smoking or whatever is ludicrous,” he said, suggesting that agencies like the DEA and FDA should push for fewer regulations and instead approve testing facilities in legal cannabis markets that could research commercially-available products.

Meanwhile, Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA), who previously opposed marijuana legalization but recently cosponsored the MORE Act, called the discussion a “critical debate” and said it was “long overdue.”

“Federal prohibition has failed -- from our criminal justice system, to our healthcare system, to our state and local governments that are forced to navigate an impossible landscape," he said.

While Kennedy acknowledged that government officials and elected representatives “bring an important perspective to this conversation,” he called for other stakeholders – such as entrepreneurs, medical cannabis patients, researchers and those “unjustly incarcerated” – to be heard as well.

“I’m grateful for the chairwoman who has committed to continuing working with us on a second hearing that will center those voices in this debate,” he said.

Full video playback of the hearing is available on the Energy and Commerce Committee’s YouTube page.

Additional information from today’s hearing, including written opening statements that can differ from those articulated during the meeting, are available here.

Stay tuned for additional coverage of the hearing on THCnet.