Last week, the Senate unanimously passed H.R. 8454, or the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act (the "Act"), sending the bill to President Biden's desk for signature. The bill passed the House this summer by a vote of 325 – 95, and marks the first time a standalone cannabis bill has been approved by the federal government. Essentially, the Act is intended to simplify and expand research into the medical possibilities of both cannabis and cannabidiol as a treatment for certain serious ailments. However, the Act does not de-schedule cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act, instead keeping cannabis a Schedule 1 drug. This means that cannabis will still be deemed to be a drug with a high likelihood for abuse, with no accepted medical use.
In particular, the Act provides for a streamlined process for the approval of cannabis research applications as follows:
- An applicant under the Act must submit a completed application to the U.S. Attorney General, which the Attorney General must approve, deny, or request additional information within 60 days. The application must include: 1) details relating to the applicant's research protocol, reviewed and approved by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (the "DHS"), the National Institutes of Health, or another agency, or according to provisions in the Federal Register, and 2) the safety measures to prevent diversion of cannabis substance (including storing it in a locked, constructed cabinet).
- If the Attorney General requests additional information and the applicant so provides, the Attorney General must approve or deny the application within 30 days of the applicant providing such additional information. If the Attorney General ultimately denies any application, an explanation of the denial must be provided.
- A registrant may update its research protocol without informing the Drug Enforcement Administration, if the quantity and form of cannabis, the source of the cannabis, and the conditions of storage will not change. If any of the foregoing items will change, the registrant must notify the Attorney General via registered mail or an electronic means permitted by the Attorney General.
- If the Attorney General does not object to the changed protocol within 30 days, it is considered approved and the registrant may go ahead with the changed protocol.
Moreover, the Act also streamlines the process for applying to manufacture cannabis products for research purposes. The application timeline is similar to the research application process, but will only begin when the Attorney General posts in the Federal Register that the Attorney General's office will increase the number of entities able to be registered under the Act as manufacturers of cannabis for medical research purposes. Then, entities may submit applications to the Attorney General. The application must show:
- The requirements of the Act and the Federal Register have been satisfied.
- The applicant will only transfer cannabis to those who are registered under the Act to perform preclinical or clinical research.
- The applicant will only transfer or sell cannabis under the Act with the prior written consent of the Attorney General.
- The applicant has completed the review process set forth in 21 U.S.C. § 823(a) of the Controlled Substances Act, which discusses general registration requirements for manufacturing Schedule I and II Controlled Substances.
- The applicant has established and actually follows a process for storing and handling a Schedule I controlled substance.
- A license to operate, if the State in which the applicant operates requires one.
The Act further authorizes registered covered institutions of higher education, like medical schools and research schools, to manufacture, distribute, dispense and possess cannabis for medical research, with guidance from the DHS and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Additionally, the Act allows for doctors to discuss with their patients, and their patients' parents if the patient is a minor, the potential benefits and risks in using medical cannabis under state medical cannabis laws. Prior to the Act, it was unclear whether such an act was a punishable offense under federal law. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is hopeful this provision, and the Act in general, will help patients with conditions like Parkinson's, epilepsy, and severe post-traumatic stress.
Lastly, the Act requires the DHS to report to Congress on particular topics of research, including but not limited to, the effects of cannabis on the human body, effects on the adolescent brain, potential impairment of cognitive ability, and barriers and solutions to studying cannabis from states with legal cannabis.
Importantly, there are a few things the Act does not do. The Act does not allow research using state-legalized products for medical research purposes; the Act only allows for using the products manufactured through the Act's protocols. Therefore, there will not be research into the products people are currently using to treat their medical ailments under state medical cannabis laws. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the Act does not de-schedule or re-schedule cannabis. President Biden issued an executive order in October asking the Secretary of the DHS and the Attorney General to begin the administrative process of de-scheduling cannabis. Presumably, research performed under this Act may lead to either de-scheduling or re-scheduling cannabis, but it is far too soon to tell.
Additionally, the Act does not implement more widespread reform. President Biden issued a pardon last month for simple cannabis possession offenses under federal law, but further reform will not be enacted unless the Senate passes one of several reform bills on the table. Even so, critics and proponents alike across the political spectrum, are lauding the Act as a necessary step for the federal government to catch up to the state legalization wave.
To read the full text of the Act, see https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/8454/text.
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