DEA allows licensing of cannabis grows for medical research
After years of delay, researchers may soon have access to potent, high-quality cannabis for research and testing. A lawsuit brought by cannabis researcher Dr. Sue Sisley has forced the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to move forward with processing applications to cultivate marijuana for scientific research.
More than 30 organizations have filed applications to grow cannabis for research purposes since August 2016. Sisley filed one of those applications three years ago, but since then it’s been lost in bureaucratic limbo. None of the applications submitted to the DEA have even been processed, much less approved.
Under the Controlled Substances Act, the U.S. Attorney General is required to publish a notice of application within 90 days of receiving an application and the associated fee. In Sisley’s lawsuit, her attorneys argue that the DEA is violating the law by holding up the process.
“We are also suing the Attorney General, not just the DEA because my gut tells me that the DEA is not responsible for impeding this,” said Sisley, who leads the Scottsdale Research Institute in Arizona.
Cannabis research has been difficult, if not impossible, for researchers who want to study marijuana’s effects in controlled experiments and clinical trials.
“On the one hand, you can’t do the research with good, high-quality cannabis because it’s a Schedule 1 drug. On the other, it’s a Schedule 1 because nobody can really do the research,” said Matt Zorn, who represents the Scottsdale Research Institute in the lawsuit.
Since 1968, the only way researchers have been able to gain access to cannabis was through the University of Mississippi, which is notoriously bad. It’s moldy, full of seeds and stems, and less potent than cannabis available through the medical or recreational markets.
“Scientists need access to options and we are handcuffed by a government-enforced monopoly that has only allowed me to study this really suboptimal study drug from Mississippi,” said Sisley. “The scientific community is concerned this is harming our data — our outcomes.”
The news that the DEA will begin processing applications for clinical-grade cannabis is welcome news, but many in the cannabis community are skeptical that the DEA will follow through.
“We’re cautiously optimistic, and this is a positive first step,” said Zorn. “But it took Dr. Sisley three years and a lawsuit just to get to this point, so I wouldn’t say the case is closed.”
Even if the DEA picks up the pace on approving research-grade cannabis grows, it will likely be several years before researchers have access to it.
“We haven’t really won anything until scientists are finally utilizing real-world cannabis flower in their clinical trials,” Sisley said.