For decades, only one location in the United States has had approval from the federal government to cultivate cannabis for the purpose of supplying it to researchers across the country: the University of Mississippi.
That is, finally, about to change.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration announced on Friday that it is “nearing the end of its review of certain marijuana grower applications, thereby allowing it to soon register additional entities authorized to produce marijuana for research purposes.”
More than four years ago, the DEA first announced that it would allow for additional entities to cultivate cannabis for research with federal approval. But the 2016 call for applicants, to which more than thirty entities responded, was followed by years of silence. And then a new announcement came in August 2019, outlining that the DEA would first need to craft a new regulatory framework for these growers. “Before making decisions on these pending applications, DEA intends to propose new regulations that will govern the marijuana growers program for scientific and medical research,” the Administration said. These regulations were finalized in late 2020.
Among the applicants, which were first reported by Cannabis Wire, were mainstream entities like Battelle, known less for its involvement with cannabis than its extensive work with the US government on homeland and national security, as well as major cannabis companies like Canopy Growth. By late 2020, the number of applications, as Cannabis Wire reported, rose to around fifty, though it remains unclear at this point how many from years ago are still active.
In its Friday announcement, the DEA wrote, “Pending final approval, DEA has determined, based on currently available information, that a number of manufacturers’ applications to cultivate marijuana for research needs in the United States appears to be consistent with applicable legal standards and relevant laws. DEA has, therefore, provided a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) to these manufacturers as the next step in the approval process.”
The DEA would not confirm to Cannabis Wire whether any specific entities have received an Memorandum of Agreement, nor would it share how many MOAs in total were submitted. But one of the first entities to publicly announce that they received one of these MOAs is Biopharmaceutical Research Company (BRC), which was among the first applicants. George Hodgin, the former Navy SEAL who launched the company in 2017, spoke with Cannabis Wire in early 2020 about the waiting game.
“It feels as if we’ve been preparing to run a race. And finally, the gun has gone off,” Hodgin told Cannabis Wire soon after Friday’s announcement from the DEA, adding that his “first reaction was an overwhelming sense of relief, excitement.”
That final approval hasn’t come yet, but the moment BRC gets it, Hodgin said, “The first thing we’re going to do is start cultivating plants so that they can get into the hands of researchers that have needed them for 50 years.”
The DEA said in its announcement that while it “expects additional approvals in the future,” it will “prioritize” the current applicants who received MOAs for final approval. The MOAs detail “the means by which the applicant and DEA will work together to facilitate the production, storage, packaging, and distribution of marijuana under the new regulations as well as other applicable legal standards and relevant laws.”
Cannabis Wire reviewed a copy of the nine-page MOA, which details requirements on everything from “quotas” to “pruning, culling, and sampling” to “harvest” and “storage” to “distribution.” An approved grower will need to let the DEA know the deepest details, including “the expected moisture content of manicured plant material,” “the anticipated yield of manicured plant material per plant,” whether the cannabis will be grown from seeds or cuttings, and “descriptions of all locations where marihuana will be grown, including whether those locations are indoor or outdoor.”
There is no explicit language around exports, and, in its announcement, the DEA references only the hundreds of licensed researchers in the US, so it remains to be seen whether the licensed entities will be allowed to ship cannabis for research to the institutions established across the globe, from Canada to Israel to Australia.