Why Don’t Researchers Have Access to Legal Cannabis? Almost Everyone Else Does

Since California became the first state to legalize medicinal cannabis in 1996, cannabis in the United States has blossomed into a state-legal, federally illegal industry worth more than $5 billion, and a majority of U.S. states have now legalized medicinal or recreational cannabis use.

Across the country, adults can easily purchase cannabis for medicinal and personal use. But for scientists looking to conduct cannabis research, acquiring samples is far more complicated.

The federal government has long struggled to keep pace with the individual states on the issue of cannabis. Under federal law, cannabis is still classified as a Schedule 1 substance (so is heroin), and legitimate research into the medicinal value of cannabis is essentially nonexistent.

For more than 60 years, the only government-sanctioned cannabis growth in the United States has come from one single source that many in the research community have labeled inadequate. Innovation in the state-legal, federally illegal cannabis industry has advanced tremendously in recent years, and it is imperative that the samples used for medical research are up to par with products already on the market in states that have legalized cannabis and with the Food and Drug Administration’s expectations for clinical research.

In 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration revised its rules so that new entities could apply for permission to grow cannabis for research. The DEA received several applications to grow cannabis for research purposes, including my company.

But since revising its rules in 2016, the DEA and Department of Justice have sat on at least 26 applications for this program, including mine. That a consumer can purchase cannabis but a scientist can’t access high-quality cannabis for legitimate research is at best irresponsible and at worst dangerous.

Fortunately, there is broad bipartisan support in Congress for increased cannabis research, and Reps. Andy Harris (R-Md.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) have just taken steps through their newly introduced Medical Marijuana Research Act to unlock innovative new research that has been blocked for years. Their colleagues in Congress should act swiftly to join them in removing these barriers that prevent further research on potential medicinal benefits, as well as the possible side effects.

I never expected to find myself in the cannabis industry. I served the United States in combat as a Navy SEAL for seven years and first became interested in medicinal cannabis when I learned about the possibility of prescribing cannabis as medicine for veterans struggling with chronic pain and post-traumatic stress.

Since then, I have built a business with the mission of uncovering potential treatments for veterans still battling internal and external wounds incurred during their deployments. It saddens me that the government I fought for is letting bureaucratic red tape stifle American innovation that could help millions of suffering patients and create American intellectual property and jobs.

According to the FDA and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, cannabis has at least some medicinal value, but more research is needed to ensure we are using cannabis in the safest and most effective manner for each patient.

There are upward of 100 unique compounds found in cannabis, known as cannabinoids. Thus far, the FDA has approved just three of these cannabinoids for medicinal use.

With rigorous scientific research, we can unleash the true potential of cannabis as medicine, as well as identify and target its side effects and regulate it as such. Different strains of cannabis affect users in different ways and can therefore interact with a patient’s symptoms with a variety of possible outcomes. If researchers and health care providers had a wider supply of cannabis to work with, we could develop more precise courses of treatment and improve outcomes for patients, including our nation’s veterans.

Barriers to research prevent veterans from accessing new and innovative treatments for their wartime wounds and trauma. That is an embarrassment.

Furthermore, the DEA already allows companies to import cannabis from Canada. Why are we importing a product that can be grown by American companies? Our allies around the world, such as Israel and the United Kingdom, all allow the production of cannabis for research. Shouldn’t we, too?

There is no major financial cost to taxpayers associated with processing these applications — the DEA just needs to issue a formal “yes” or “no” to each applicant. My hope is that Congress can move quickly on the Medical Marijuana Research Act so that we can find treatments, but also so that we can address the current backward situation in which a product becomes legal and more widely available without the backing of sound scientific research.

It is time for the DEA to heed the will of Congress — and the will of patients and health care providers across the country — and process our applications for cannabis growth and research. Cannabis should be produced and investigated like any other potential medicine. The DEA and DOJ have a responsibility to empower cannabis suppliers and researchers so that we can develop effective treatments and provide the best and safest possible care to patients.


George Hodgin is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, a former Navy SEAL and the CEO of Biopharmaceutical Research Co. near Monterey, Calif. 

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