There’s a lot of federal cannabis buzz lately, but not as much action.
On Wednesday, the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation (CPEAR) sponsored a virtual event, hosted by The Hill, that focused on cannabis regulation. Speakers included US Senator John Hickenlooper, US Rep. Nancy Mace, and National Institute on Drug Abuse director Nora Volkow, among others.
The event took place against the backdrop of an aggressive push this week for the inclusion of cannabis banking language in the National Defense Authorization Act, which is unlikely, and, more broadly, the rollout this year of comprehensive cannabis legalization proposals from both Democrats and Republicans. (Read Cannabis Wire’s coverage of how these proposals differ.)
Hickenlooper, also the former governor of Colorado, spoke about the cannabis impairment-related provisions for which he pushed in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The language, as Cannabis Wire reported, calls for a report that “identifies, and contains recommendations for addressing, Federal statutory and regulatory barriers to — (A) the conduct of scientific research on marijuana-impaired driving; and (B) the establishment of a national clearinghouse for purposes of facilitating research on marijuana-impaired driving.”
There’s no national standard for determining cannabis-impairment on the road, like with alcohol.
“It makes sense,” Hickenlooper said Wednesday, of the effort to research impairment. “It basically is all about making sure that we begin studying and finding ways to measure the impact of marijuana on your inebriation.”
Hickenlooper also spoke about the SAFE Banking Act, which Hickenlooper and other cannabis law reform supporters are hoping makes it through to the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022, though it’s looking like a long shot.
“I’ve been here less than a year, so I’m the wrong person to ask to prognosticate on the success of any given bill,” Hickenlooper said, adding that he thinks it makes a lot of sense, policy-wise.
“Right now, there are multiple negative consequences of having it be a cash business. One is that the businesses themselves can’t get loans. It’s not bankable. So it keeps those people that were most affected in a negative way, by the war on drugs, it keeps them out. They don’t get to participate in this new economy,” Hickenlooper said. “It also means there’s a tremendously higher rate of crime.”
Rep. Nancy Mace, sponsor of the States Reform Act, also spoke about her legalization bill, the first legalization and regulation proposal to be introduced by a Republican in Congress, sharing that she started consuming cannabis after she was sexually assaulted when she was 18.
“It certainly helped me cut my anxiety during a really tough, incredibly difficult time in my life,” Mace said, adding that she worked on the bill for roughly nine months.
Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse within the National Institutes of Health, gave a high-level overview of the endocannabinoid system and about where NIDA is focusing its research, which is generally related to how cannabis affects the brain.
NIDA is “mostly concentrated” on two cannabinoids, delta-9 THC, “which is the one that people seek out because it actually makes you feel high and creates a sense of reward and well-being,” and CBD.
“There has been an enormous amount of interest because CBD can reduce anxiety and can have analgesic effects,” Volkow said. “CBD, though, is not rewarding. And it can actually in some instances antagonize the rewarding effects of THC.”
NIDA researchers are also examining the outcomes of “artificially stimulating” the endocannabinoid system through cannabis consumption during adolescence, which could potentially “jeopardize” brain development. Volkow reiterated, as she has before, that cannabinoids can cross the placental barrier, so cannabis consumption during pregnancy is also a concern.
State cannabis laws are moving faster than science, Volkow said, describing how dispensary workers recommend medical cannabis for conditions, even when evidence is lacking. This can lead to people forgoing mainstream treatments in favor of cannabis, she said.
“This highlights, really, the need to conduct more research, so that we can understand, ultimately, what cannabis can do, or not do,” Volkow said.
Volkow described many of the products on the illicit market, which tend to contain lower amounts of CBD and high-THC, and have been “increasing significantly” in THC content.
“The higher the content of delta-9 THC, the greater the risk of adverse consequences from smoking marijuana,” Volkow said, noting that there is “absolute evidence” that some people will have dependency issues. Volkow also pointed out that products higher in THC content also bring with them the increased potential for adverse reactions and hyperemesis (though that’s rare).
“It is crucial as the states go on legalizing marijuana that we actually take advantage of science and the knowledge that it derives to help guide policy because ultimately, what you want to do is to do policies that minimize harm to people. And when it comes to drugs, we know the concept that drugs, actually, when people take drugs, there is a consequence to their biology that actually is important for them to know,” Volkow said.
Considering adult use legalization, Volkow said that she has seen “across multiple states” messaging that cannabis doesn’t have any “negative consequences.”
“There is evidence that, absolutely, in certain situations, cannabis can have negative effects. While at the same time recognizing that cannabis is a product that has multiple chemicals and the effects of these chemicals in certain instances may have potential for therapeutic use. So it’s not a black and white situation, and knowledge can give us that insight,” Volkow said.