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DEA says it will expand marijuana research, ending years of delay

The federal government is taking steps to improve access to legal marijuana for medical and scientific researchers, with the Justice Department announcing Monday it will take action on long-delayed applications to expand the number of entities certified to grow marijuana plants.

Two days before a deadline to respond to a lawsuit brought by researchers, the Drug Enforcement Administration filed a notice in the Federal Register acknowledging dozens of applications from potential growers. DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon said the agency is "making progress in the program to register additional marijuana growers for federally authorized research, and will work with other relevant federal agencies to expedite the necessary next steps."

The DEA said it plans to propose new regulations for growers before making a determination about pending applications.

Attorney General William Barr welcomed the move, saying he is "pleased that DEA is moving forward with its review of applications for those who seek to grow marijuana legally to support research."

Currently all marijuana used for federally approved researchers must be supplied by the University of Mississippi, as part of a contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

The DEA said in 2016 that it would accept applications to expand the number of entities authorized to grow the drug for research purposes, and 33 entities, including companies and universities, ultimately applied. But the agency failed to review or even acknowledge those applications for years, despite a federal statute requiring a response within 90 days.   

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The Phoenix-based Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI), which researches medical uses of cannabis, filed suit in June, asking the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to order the DEA and attorney general to process its application. The agency had a deadline of Wednesday to respond to the lawsuit. 

Dr. Sue Sisley, SRI's principal investigator, said "poor-quality" marijuana was getting in the way of future research. She completed the first randomized trial of "whole plant" marijuana to treat post traumatic stress disorder earlier this year, using marijuana obtained from the University of Mississippi. The cannabis she used for the second phase of the study, the results of which have not yet been published, arrived in powder form. Some samples contained mold, and others were diluted with stems and leaves. She said the quality of the samples was a far cry from the marijuana available for sale in states where it's already legal for recreational use under state law.

"We have a situation where there [are] thousands of different phenotypes of cannabis being sold throughout the regulated market, the illicit market, and that's the material that we would like to work with," Sisley said in an interview earlier this month. "Scientists want to understand or be able to replicate what patients are using in the real world because patients are claiming to have these transformative experiences with cannabis." 

Support for more marijuana research has been growing. Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers sent letters to the DEA urging the agency to resolve the outstanding applications.

Two weeks ago, the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) filed an amicus brief in support of the petition filed by SRI. A 2018 survey of 4,600 veteran members found 72% of respondents said cannabis should be researched for medicinal uses. IAVA CEO Jeremy Butler said many veterans are already using marijuana to treat issues like chronic pain and symptoms related to PTSD.

"What we need is research to find out whether or not cannabis is useful in this. If it is found to be useful, then we want to make sure that our veterans have access to it," Butler said. "If it turns out that despite the anecdotal evidence, cannabis is not actually useful in treating these symptoms, then we want to make sure veterans know that too, so that those who are already self medicating with it, can stop doing it and can seek alternative treatment."

On Monday, Sisley called the DEA's announcement a "historic victory."

"Now we just need to keep the DEA's feet to the fire and make sure they follow their own timelines they laid out in today's public notice," she said in an email. "It's going to take a long time to get access to newly cultivated cannabis material for research, but at least that door is now kicked open."

SRI's attorneys said it's still too early to tell how Monday's announcement will impact the outcome of the lawsuit. But they acknowledged it could be the first step in making strides for marijuana research.

"It looks like they're moving in a very positive direction. However they decide to deal with these applications, the fact that they are acknowledging their interest in promoting and facilitating research into marijuana's medical, potential medical uses, that's fantastic news," said attorney Shane Pennington.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the name of the court where the lawsuit was filed. It is the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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