DEA Announces Plan to Improve Access to Cannabis for Researchers

August 28, 2019

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced in a press release (1) that it is moving forward to facilitate and expand scientific and medical research for cannabis in the United States. The DEA is providing notice of pending applications from entities applying to be registered to manufacture cannabis for researchers.

According to the press release, over the last two years, the total number of individuals registered by DEA to conduct research with cannabis, cannabis extracts, derivatives, and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) has increased by more than 40% from 384 in January 2017 to 542 in January 2019. Similarly, in the last two years, DEA has more than doubled the production quota for cannabis each year based on increased usage projections for federally approved research projects.

“I am pleased that DEA is moving forward with its review of applications for those who seek to grow marijuana legally to support research,” said Attorney General William P. Barr.  “The Department of Justice will continue to work with our colleagues at the Department of Health and Human Services and across the Administration to improve research opportunities wherever we can.”

“DEA 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,” said DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon.  “We support additional research into marijuana and its components, and we believe registering more growers will result in researchers having access to a wider variety for study.”

The University of Mississippi, which has a contract through the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) to grow cannabis, has historically been the only place where researchers could get access to cannabis for their studies (2). Several prominent researchers in the cannabis field—such as Dr. Sue Sisley of the Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI)—have been very vocal about the poor quality of cannabis coming from the University of Mississippi.

In 2016, the DEA announced that it would start accepting applications for other licensed growers to supply cannabis for legitimate research in the U.S. (3,4). However, the applications have not been approved in the timeframe outlined in 2016, which stated a 90-day review. In June 2019, Dr. Sisley filed a law suit against the DEA seeking action on SRI’s application to grow cannabis (5). The petition to the court says in part that the cannabis Dr. Sisley received from the University of Mississippi for her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) clinical trial with veterans “arrived in powdered form, tainted with extraneous material like sticks and seeds, and many samples were moldy.” The petition explains that allowing SRI to grow its own cannabis would improve drug quality as well as provide them with tighter control over dosages. They have been waiting for the DEA to respond for more than two years ago, which according to the petition is an unlawful and unreasonable delay.

The announcement from the DEA comes just ahead of the court’s deadline for the agency to respond to the lawsuit. According to the DEA press release, before making decisions on the pending applications they intend to propose new regulations that will govern the cannabis growers program for scientific and medical research. The new rules will reportedly help ensure that the DEA can evaluate the applications under the applicable legal standard and conform the program to relevant laws.