Last week was an active week when it comes to marijuana policy. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced that it will begin considering (and approving?) applications to allow for the manufacture (growing) of marijuana for research purposes. Shortly thereafter, United States Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Jerome M. Adams (Dr. Adams), issued an advisory regarding the significant adverse effects of marijuana use by adolescents and by women during pregnancy. Both developments could foreshadow the long road ahead for marijuana legalization advocates seeking DEA’s removal of marijuana from its listing as a schedule I controlled substance.

DEA Announces Steps Necessary to Improve Access to Marijuana Research

Acknowledging that the current legal production of marijuana for research purposes may not meet the legitimate scientific needs of the country, DEA announced that it will establish a process to grant DEA registrations to increase the number of growers of marijuana in the United States. For decades, the University of Mississippi has held a monopoly for growing the federal government’s marijuana. In 2016, DEA announced a “policy change designed to foster research by expanding the number of DEA-registered marijuana manufacturers.” Since that time, however, DEA has not issued one such registration.

Now, three years later, the agency announces that it will begin to issue registrations to marijuana manufacturers, only after DEA promulgates regulations to “govern the marijuana growers program for scientific and medical research.” There is a strong argument to be made that such regulations are unnecessary. The Controlled Substances Act and DEA’s current regulations already establish the requirements for obtaining a manufacturer registration for schedule I controlled substances and for conducting research with the same. In any event, as we have seen in recent years, the promulgation of regulations by the DEA can take some time and I don’t expect that the new regulations will sail through the cumbersome regulatory process any time soon. It will be interesting to see if the thirty-three entities with pending applications to manufacturer marijuana will challenge the agency’s failure to timely adjudicate their applications for registration.

There has been much ado about DEA’s acknowledgment in its announcement that “hemp, including hemp plants and cannabidiol (CBD) preparations at or below the 0.3 percent delta-9 THC threshold, is not a controlled substance, and a DEA registration is not required to grow or research it.” The importance of this to many relates to the legal challenges facing manufacturers and retail sellers of certain products containing CBD. The CBD issue, however, is not a DEA issue. Congress removed these products from the schedules of controlled substances. DEA has no choice but to follow Congress’ lead and its announcement is no more than an acknowledgement of that.

While this announcement does provide hope for entities wishing to manufacturer and conduct research with marijuana, absent legal action, more than a little patience will be required.

 U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory: Marijuana Use and the Developing Brain

In what can only be described, at a minimum, as a remarkable coincidence, just three days after DEA’s announcement, Dr. Adams issued an advisory emphasizing the importance of protecting our Nation from the health risks of marijuana use in adolescence and during pregnancy. Recent increases in access to marijuana and in its potency, along with misperceptions of safety of marijuana endanger our most precious resource, our nation’s youth.

The key points raised by the advisory (and supported by significant research) include:

  • Strongly advising that marijuana should not be used during pregnancy or by adolescents.
  • Marijuana use during pregnancy can affect the developing fetus by, among other things, hindering fetal brain development and increasing the risk of lower birth weight.
  • Likewise, marijuana use by adolescents causes deficits in attention, impaired learning, decline in IQ and school performance, and an increased risk for early onset of psychotic disorders.
  • Marijuana is also still considered a “gateway drug” and its use by adolescents increase the likelihood of the misuse of opioids.

I found it interesting that, in addition to issuing the warning regarding marijuana use, Dr. Adams reiterates what the Food and Drug Administration has been warning the public about regarding CBD products, “[w]hile CBD is not intoxicating and does not lead to addiction, its long-term effects are largely unknown, and most CBD products are untested and of uncertain purity.”

Whether coincidence or not, the Surgeon General’s advisory is a stark reminder that the risks associated with marijuana use still outweigh the few medical benefits that have been documented through clinical trials and legitimate scientific research.  DEA’s actions may certainly facilitate greater domestic research into the potential health benefits of marijuana use. It remains to be seen, however, if that research will trump the health risks related to marijuana use described in detail by the Surgeon General.