The Senate unexpectedly passed a cannabis research bill on Wednesday, making it the first cannabis reform bill to clear Congress since the passage of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act put cannabis in Schedule 1, the strictest category, where it remains today.
The Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act, sponsored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, also founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, aims to create a path for more robust research on cannabis at a time when nearly half of the country has legalized for adult use, and nearly every state has some kind of medical cannabis program.
“For far too long, the federal government has stood in the way of science and progress, creating barriers for researchers attempting to study cannabis and its benefits,” Blumenauer said in a statement about the bill’s passage in the Senate.
When speaking about the bill on the Senate floor on Wednesday evening, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer alluded to the potential for progress on other legislation during the lame-duck session. One bill in particular that has been under discussion is some form of the SAFE Banking Act that includes justice-focused provisions.
“I hope after passing this bill, the Senate can make progress on other cannabis legislation, too. I’m still holding productive talks with Democratic and Republican colleagues in the House and the Senate on moving additional bipartisan cannabis legislation in the lame-duck, and we’re going to try very, very hard to get it done. It’s not easy, but we’re making good progress,” he said.
Researchers have for years reported layers of bureaucratic red tape as they tried to research cannabis and cannabinoids. By creating a “new, separate registration process to facilitate research on marijuana,” Blumenauer hopes that cannabis-related research will pick up steam.
“Research is foundational for cannabis policy. To be able to understand and apply the therapeutic properties of cannabis—from treating depression and anxiety to easing chronic pain and appetite loss—has the potential to change the quality of life for millions of Americans,” Blumenauer said. “This is particularly important for our veterans, cancer patients, and countless others who struggle with chronic conditions.”
Broadly, the Act aims to make things easier for researchers who want to study cannabis, and for entities that want to produce cannabis for researchers. Both of these things are already happening, as Cannabis Wire has reported, but in a slow and cumbersome way as a result of federal cannabis law. Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act is for substances with no medical use and a high abuse potential. Until cannabis is removed from the Controlled Substances Act, some research barriers will persist, but the research bill could grease the wheels.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have introduced bills to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and end the federal criminalization of cannabis, as Cannabis Wire has reported, but none have cleared the Senate, only the House.
One section of the research bill in particular could result in further reforms when it comes to the placement of cannabis in the Controlled Substances Act. It calls on the Secretary of Health and Human Services, along with the Director of the National Institutes of Health, to submit a report to Congress within one year of the bill’s enactment on: “the potential therapeutic effects of cannabidiol or marijuana on serious medical conditions” and on “the barriers associated with researching marijuana or cannabidiol in States that have legalized the use of such substances.” Further, the report should include “recommendations as to how such barriers might be overcome, including whether public-private partnerships or Federal-State research partnerships may or should be implemented to provide researchers with access to additional strains of marijuana and cannabidiol.”
The need for more research on cannabis is a rare area of cannabis policy that Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly agree on, even though they may have disagreements around the details, and certainly around broader reforms.
“This legislation,” Blumenauer said, “is a signal that the House and Senate are able to resolve minor differences in pursuit of larger objectives. We must be laser-like focused on using this momentum to make progress on broader reform, to engage in restorative justice for communities most impacted by the disastrous war on drugs.”
Blumenauer said that with the passage of the Act in the Senate, “finally the dam is starting to break.”
Since 2020, lawmakers in both the House and Senate have tried to advance their own proposals to expand research on cannabis: the Medical Marijuana Research Act and the Cannabidiol and Marihuana Research Expansion Act, respectively.
Then, this July, the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act emerged as a compromise. It largely mirrors the Senate’s original research bill. One noteworthy omission from the original House bill is language that would’ve allowed researchers to study state-legal cannabis products.
Nonetheless, the two chambers, and the two parties, came together. During a discussion of the House’s research bill earlier this year, co-sponsor Rep. Andy Harris said, “We disagree about recreational marijuana – he supports it, I oppose it,” referring to Blumenauer, the other co-sponsor.
But, he added, “If we’re going to have medical marijuana legal … in over three dozen states, we really ought to do research on it, to see what it’s used for and what it can’t be used for.”