Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican, is an angry longtime opponent of marijuana legalization and the last person one would expect to vote for any degree of reform. But in June he did just that.
Harris joined with Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, to push legislation that would make it easier for scientists to research cannabis – both its harms and its benefits. Blumenauer is one of the most adamant supporters of legalization on Capitol Hill, recently named “top legal pot advocate” by Rolling Stone magazine.
Harris, on the other hand, is so antagonistic to reform he single-handedly prohibited legal pot shops in Washington, D.C. But he says he wants to “cut through the red tape” that now blocks researchers from obtaining cannabis and studying its effects in clinical trials.
Researching the harms and benefits
His bill, the bipartisan Medical Marijuana Research Act of 2016, would open up new sources of research marijuana, he said. Currently scientists may obtain the drug from only a single source, a small marijuana farm at the University of Mississippi.
“Because of this monopoly, research-grade drugs that meet researchers’ specifications often take years to acquire, if they are produced at all,” researchers at the Brookings Institution reported last year.
Scientists also face difficult bureaucratic obstacles: Before studying marijuana, they must win approval from the DEA, the FDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and, sometimes, the National Institutes on Health. That process is so burdensome and time-consuming it discourages most researchers from even trying. One study on cannabis as a treatment for PTSD was stalled for seven years while the team behind it sought government permission.
Medical Marijauna Research Act
Harris and Bluemnauer joined Reps. Sam Farr, a California Democrat, and H. Morgan Griffith, a Virginia Republican, in sponsoring the Medical Marijuana Research Act. They said the bill would help growers supply researchers with marijuana, remove layers of federal review required to clear studies, and cut the amount of time it takes to win approval.
But the biggest change in the legislation could be a watershed for medical cannabis. The change would require federal agencies to “grant an application for (approval) unless it’s not in the public interest, rather than assuming it’s not,” Blumenauer said. “Reversing that presumption is huge.”
The bill would not actually legalize pot – or make it any easier to do so. The drug would remain listed under schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, a category of drugs banned for any use that includes heroin, LSD, and magic mushrooms. Instead, the legislation would create a subcategory within schedule 1 for research marijuana.
“Marijuana’s actually different from other things in Schedule 1, which are all discrete chemicals,” Harris told The Washington Post. “The plant is a combination of hundreds of compounds, so it needs to be treated separately from the other drugs in schedule 1.”
The DEA is currently considering whether to reschedule cannabis on its own authority, a decision expected by July. If it were to happen, states could safely legalize the drug for medical and possibly recreational use. But most observers predict the DEA will reject that proposal. Harris said that process had no influence on his legislation.
“I’m not going to wait for the DEA to figure out what’s going on,” he said.