U.S. Attorney General William Barr. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Here are the basics of Letter One:
“Seriously. Hurry up with licensing more cannabis cultivators for medical research purposes. Science is important, and the U.S. is falling behind.” Lovingly signed, Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Christopher Coons (D-DE), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA.)
And the basics of Letter Two:
“We know you might try to reinterpret the UN’s policy on how many cannabis cultivators a government can license. Heads up! It says you can license as many as you like. So seriously. Hurry up.” With fond wishes, Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Brian Schatz (D-HI.)
So why do the Senators need to put a pep in AG Barr’s step on medical marijuana research? Here’s the deal.
As the Senators’ first letter points out, since spring of 1968, The Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy has been the only federally-licensed grower of cannabis in the nation. They grew to supply government researchers, historically so they could study marijuana in search of negative effects (they found very few). What’s worse, for 50 years now, the Ole’ Miss Marijuana Farm has consistently been growing the weak stuff (2-4% THC), which does not reflect the medical grade of cannabis Americans are actually using (18-30% THC).
By 2016, more than half of all U.S. states had created some kind of legal framework for medical cannabis, so the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said it would license more marijuana cultivation facilities to supply U.S. medical researchers. The DEA then created an application process so it could license those new cultivators. At least 25 facilities applied.
But a few months later, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions raised his hand. "Excuse me," he piped up, "but good people do not smoke marijuana." And that’s the story of how stigma blocked the DEA from reviewing any medical marijuana grower applications for three years.
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Senators even wrote to Sessions in 2018 asking what the holdup was, but the AG ignored that letter, and as one senior DEA official told reporters, Sessions continued to block grower applications from getting reviewed by the DEA until the day he left office. As a direct result, the U.S. is far from being a leader in the global field of cannabis science.
In fact, it’s not even in the top five (see: Israel, Czech Republic, Uruguay, Canada, Netherlands).
Now, we have a brand-spanking-new AG—one who even said in his pre-confirmation hearing (and later put in writing) that he would "not go after" state-legal marijuana companies. Yet four months into Barr's tenure, there's still no word on why he hasn’t lifted Sessions’ restrictions on reviewing grower applications.
So in the first letter, the senators ask Barr to answer six basic questions about the DEA’s process of licensing new cultivators so far. He has until April 23rd to respond.
In the second letter, two senators warn Barr about not trying to reinterpret the United Nations’ rules on governments licensing marijuana growers. Here, they’re referring to an international treaty called The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics. Every UN country that signed it agreed to prohibit the production and supply of narcotic drugs. But in Articles 23 and 28, the treaty says a federal government can license producers of a drug in order to research it.
Senators Booker and Schatz are basically telling Barr that they know he may try to reread the UN’s policy on Narcotics. But, they say, the State Department reached the conclusion in 2016 that there is nothing in that treaty that limits the number of licenses a government can issue. The senators say any attempt to reinterpret the UN Narcotics Treaty will only put the U.S. as a follower, not a leader, in medical cannabis research.
The support for more medical marijuana research is prevalent in both red and blue states. In September 2017, a billby Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz that would mandate an increased number of cultivators from one to three easily passed the House Judiciary Committee. Even the Head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse said this week that marijuana having a Schedule One status makes it difficult to research, in part due to the limited study supply.
Now, all AG Barr has to do is lift the barrier that Sessions put in place. Let’s see if he gets the ball rolling, so American medical researchers can start to pull ahead of the international pack.