The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is up against an imminent deadline to provide Congress with a report on the therapeutic potential of marijuana and barriers to research under a cannabis bill that President Joe Biden signed into law last year. This comes weeks after another agency missed its due date to produce a separate cannabis report focused on impaired driving that HHS was also involved in.
Under the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act—which is generally designed to streamline the process of accessing marijuana and its components for study purposes—HHS is required to send the report to certain congressional committees within one year of Biden signing the bill, a deadline that arrives on Saturday.
That report is meant to include an assessment of the medical potential of marijuana and CBD for “serious conditions” such as epilepsy, the effects of delta-9 THC on brain development and driving ability and barriers to researching cannabis in states that have legalized its use.
“A year ago, our medical marijuana research legislation became the first stand-alone cannabis reform enacted since the adoption of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA),” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), founding co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus who sponsored the House version of the now-enacted law, told Marijuana Moment on Friday.
He added that the bill’s enactment came “during a wave of progress toward ending the failed prohibition of cannabis,” including Biden’s directive for an administrative review into cannabis scheduling and mass pardon for people with prior federal marijuana possession convictions.
“With the momentum on our side, I am confident our research bill will not be the last commonsense reform enacted during Biden’s presidency,” Blumenauer, who is retiring next year after nearly three decades advocating for cannabis policy issues in Congress, said. HHS “should now expeditiously release their report on the utility of cannabis therapeutics and current barriers to research. This will help inform the path forward.”
The research barriers provision of the reporting requirement also says HHS, in concert with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and “other relevant Federal agencies,” must provide recommendations on overcoming such obstacles, 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 agencies must also issue recommendations on safeguards that should be put in place to verify that levels of cannabinoids in regulated products in legal states are accurate and that they don’t “contain harmful or toxic components.”
Marijuana Moment reached out to HHS for comment on the status of the report, but a representative was not immediately available.
It’s not necessarily unusual for federal agencies to miss deadlines on reporting requirements that are included in broader legislation. For example, the Department of Transportation (DOT), in consultation with HHS and the attorney general, was due to deliver a separate report on cannabis research barriers last month under large-scale infrastructure legislation that Biden signed in 2021.
That report was meant to focus on research challenges that are inhibiting the development of a standardized test for marijuana impairment on the roads. Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), who sponsored an amendment to secure the report mandate, sent a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) under DOT around this time last year requesting a status update.
A NHTSA spokesperson told Marijuana Moment on Friday that the agency is still “working expeditiously to finalize the reports as well as all its Bipartisan Infrastructure Law requirements.”
Saturday’s HHS report deadline, meanwhile, comes months after the agency completed its broader review into cannabis scheduling under Biden’s October 2022 directive. Following its scientific assessment, HHS advised the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III under the CSA, and the law enforcement agency is now carrying out its own review before making a final determination.
With respect to cannabis research barriers, numerous advocates, lawmakers, scientists and federal health officials have long complained about the onerous process of accessing marijuana for study purposes given its current scheduling status.
The bill Biden signed last year is designed to help researchers overcome certain of those challenges, but advocates have also pushed for broader policy changes, including those that would allow scientists to access cannabis products from state markets that they’re currently barred from utilizing.
In a recent notice, NIH said it recognizes that there are ample concerns among scientists about how they’ve “encountered barriers that have hampered their research” into marijuana under federal prohibition, including “complex” federal regulations and inadequate supplies of cannabis.
That’s why the agency is now seeking to resolve some of those challenges by standing up a Resource Center for Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research.
Here are details on what HHS is supposed to submit to Congress by Saturday:
SEC. 401. FEDERAL RESEARCH.
(a) In General.–Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, in coordination with the Director of the National Institutes of Health and the heads of other relevant Federal agencies, shall submit to the Caucus on International Narcotics Control, the Committee on the Judiciary, and the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions of the Senate and the Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives a report on–
(1) the potential therapeutic effects of cannabidiol or marijuana on serious medical conditions, including intractable epilepsy;
(2) the potential effects of marijuana, including–
(A) the effect of increasing delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol levels on the human body and developing adolescent brains; and
(B) the effect of various delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol levels on cognitive abilities, such as those that are required to operate motor vehicles or other heavy equipment; and
(3) the barriers associated with researching marijuana or cannabidiol in States that have legalized the use of such substances, which shall include–
(A) 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; and
(B) recommendations as to what safeguards must be in place to verify–
(i) the levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, cannabidiol, or other cannabinoids contained in products obtained from such States is accurate; and
(ii) that such products do not contain harmful or toxic components.
(b) Activities.–To the extent practicable, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, either directly or through awarding grants, contacts, or cooperative agreements, shall expand and coordinate the activities of the National Institutes of Health and other relevant Federal agencies to better determine the effects of cannabidiol and marijuana, as outlined in the report submitted under paragraphs (1) and (2) of subsection (a).
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
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