For decades, the legal status of cannabis has hampered research focused on the physiological effects of the plant and its molecular components. However, federal controls that once limited cannabis research are starting to change. Let’s take a look at how the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Congress are expanding the number of federally approved cannabis growers for research.

Regulatory Hurdles to Research

Cannabis is classified as a Schedule I substance by the DEA. This illicit status creates a labyrinth of regulatory barriers for scientists hoping to conduct clinical research using cannabis.

And it’s not just the DEA. Researchers often have to consult with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), regulatory offices or departments at the state level, review boards at research institutions, and potential funders. For many, the process is too intimidating and time consuming to take on.

The Supply Bottleneck

Even if a researcher manages to overcome every regulatory hurdle, they’ll likely have trouble obtaining cannabis products legally. Although the cannabis industry is flourishing in many states across the country, it’s difficult for researchers to gain legal access to the quality and quantity of cannabis products needed for clinical research. That’s because there is currently just one federally approved cannabis supplier in the entire country, the Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy.

The Obama administration encouraged the DEA to begin accepting applications to expand the number of federally licensed cannabis suppliers in the U.S. However, the application and approval process came to a halt under the Trump presidency.

A New Era for Cannabis Research

In December 2020, the DEA renewed its commitment to expanding the number of federally approved cannabis producers for research. Under the DEA’s new rule, the agency plans to approve at least three and as many as 15 cannabis producers for federally funded cannabis research. However, cannabis producers already operating in states with legalized cannabis will be at a disadvantage as the DEA is unlikely to approve applicants in violation of federal cannabis laws.

Congress is also working to expand access to cannabis for researchers. In December 2020, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 3797, the Medical Marijuana Research Act. In addition to requiring the DEA to license more federal cannabis suppliers, the bill would also allow authorized research scientists to access cannabis products from state-approved growers and manufacturers.

Although the current measures don’t address the legal status of cannabis at the federal level, they have the potential to expand access to cannabis products, removing one of the major barriers to cannabis research. And with more research available, consumers, health care professionals, and lawmakers will have a broader base of evidence to make better decisions regarding cannabis.