On Thursday September 13th 2018, the U.S. House panel that oversees federal drug enforcement efforts approved a bill that urges Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his Department of Justice to issue more licenses to grow cannabis for research purposes. The bill in question is the Medical Cannabis Research Act, which was sponsored by Representative Matt Gaetz and 40 bipartisan cosponsors.
For decades, the only place in the United States where fully and federally legal cannabis is grown is at the University of Mississippi. Researchers there, however, have been continually disappointed with the quality of the bud they receive for testing because they say it doesn’t compare to the medical cannabis most Americans currently have access to in states where it is legal. The Medical Cannabis Research Act would issue more licenses to research institutes and ease some of the restrictions that have prevented cannabis from being studied for medicinal benefits.
The good news: the bill was approved!
Here’s the bad news….
One of the Medical Cannabis Research Act’s greatest sources of contention – and one that caused bitter arguments prior to the September 13th vote – was the provision that anyone with a “conviction for a felony or drug-related misdemeanor” could not be associated with or participate in the cannabis research.
This might sound like a legitimate provision until you consider that many, if not most of those misdemeanors or convictions were cannabis-related, which brings the argument full circle. Additionally, many people feel that drug-related arrests are disproportionately made against people of color and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“There is no legitimate health or public safety justification for the inclusion of this language and we urge you to strike this unnecessary, punitive ban on individuals with previous drug law violations,” read a letter sent to the committee’s leaders on the day before the vote. The letter was the collaborative effort by a number of groups, including the Drug Policy Alliance, Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, #cut50, and others.
“To help lower recidivism rates and improve public safety, we should be making it easier for people with records to obtain jobs, not more difficult.”
Supporters of legalization tried hard to amend the Medical Cannabis Research Act to everyone’s satisfaction but the final spanner in the works was thrown by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). Goodlatte, who has long stood in opposition to cannabis reform, refused to compromise, maintaining that people with drug misdemeanors and felony convictions (notably, for cannabis possession) would not be allowed to participate in any way in cannabis research.
As a consequence of this, some of the drug policy reform groups who initially pushed for the Medical Cannabis Research Act turned on it and urged lawmakers to do the same. The legislation as introduced “unfortunately and unjustly expands the collateral consequences of criminal convictions,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the top Democrat on the panel, at the outset of an hour-long debate before the vote.
“Precedent is the biggest concern,” Michael Collins, interim director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs, said in a phone interview. “If the committee is already on the record saying we ban people from participating in this sector of this industry, that’s going to possibly win the day going forward.”
The committee voted and the outcome was the approval of the Medical Cannabis Research Act. Some regarded the news as a positive step forward:
“We must ensure that an adequate and uninterrupted supply of research-grade cannabis is available to safe harbor provisions for research facilities. I am proud to lead the efforts to unlock cures through important scientific research,” Tweeted Gaetz on the day of the vote. “The federal government should not stand in the way of collaboration that can help people live better lives.”
Others were slightly more somber in their assessment:
“While the Medical Cannabis Research Act consideration represents progress, it’s a drop in the ocean given what we need to do to end federal prohibition and repair the harms of the drug war,” said Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance. He added that the restrictive provisions are “egregious, unnecessary, and representative of an outdated approach to public policy.”
Another facet to the debate being raised about the Medical Cannabis Research Act is whether or not more cannabis research really is needed to reschedule cannabis. Currently, under its Schedule 1 designation, cannabis is deemed a highly dangerous drug with a high potential for addiction and abuse, with no medicinal value. Yet, there are numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies proving the medical applications of cannabis. Furthermore, it is widely understood that no human deaths have ever resulted from cannabis plant overdose. This logically eliminates cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug.
“While this vote marks a step forward, it must also be acknowledged that despite existing barriers to research, ample studies already exist to contradict cannabis’ federal, Schedule I status as a substance without medical utility, lacking acceptable safety, and possessing a high potential of abuse,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said in a press release. Of course, “science has never driven cannabis policy. If it did, the United States would already have a very different policy in place.”