Senators push for more research on medical benefits of marijuana

Hearing comes after White House action

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Members of the Senate are attempting to finish off where the White House started earlier this week, by calling for the removal of additional barriers still in place that they believe are limiting scientific study on the effects of marijuana.

At a hearing of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control Wednesday, members challenged representatives from the Drug Enforcement Agency, Federal Drug Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse on the current process for approving marijuana studies. 

"I understand the desire for caution. We're Congress, we act slowly. But these are people who need the help, for who a five- to 10-month delay is a death sentence," said Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah. 

The hearing specifically looked at the effects of cannabidiol, a derivative of marijuana, on patients. Many members and witnesses spoke of anecdotal evidence that the drug helped children with chronic epilepsy when nothing else would.  

However, large-scale studies on the link have been rare, largely in part of heavily controlled federal government approval of marijuana research.

The hearing came on the heels of White House action earlier this week that removed a key government hurdle blocking many scientific marijuana studies from moving forward. The White House action means scientists will no longer have to submit research proposals to the Public Health Service Review (PHS) at the Department of Health and Human Services to get a green light for marijuana research.

But while the move, which was announced Monday, signals a shift in federal policy, many caution that there remain significant barriers to studying the drug’s positive medical effects on humans.

Marijuana advocates point out that the PHS was only one of three major hurdles limiting research. The other two -- the fact that researchers can only use marijuana from a single government-owned dispensary at the University of Mississippi and classifying marijuana as a Schedule I drug – endure.

Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, and Corey Booker, D-NJ, are two key members of Congress who are fighting for more studies on the effects of the drug. Earlier this year they introduced a bill, along with Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY, that in addition to getting rid of the now-defunct PHS review, would downgrade marijuana from a Schedule I drug, up there with heroin, to a Schedule II, in the line with opiates.

Both senators were guests at the caucus hearing and took no time to challenge witnesses from the various government agencies present.

A fiery Gillibrand challenged NIDA and the National Institute for Health's strict control of cannabidiol. NIDA representatives said one drug company had a patent on cannabidiol. Many fear this control over the drug will limit future research options. Gillibrand shot back saying, "Let's be clear, we have to change the laws to remove the impediments so that we have research across the country."

Whether it be cannibidiol or marijuana in general, supporters say much still needs to be done to study the drug and get it available on markets where medical marijuana is legal.

“Arguably the largest hurdle in this process still remains in place,” Paul Armentano, deputy director at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws said. “That is that government policy … mandates that all clinical protocols must utilize government grown cannabis provided by NIDA.”

Historically NIDA has been reluctant to give the go-ahead to large-scale marijuana studies exploring the plant’s potential benefits. Just in 2010, a spokesperson told the New York Times, “Our focus is primarily on the negative consequences of marijuana use. We generally do not fund research focused on the potential beneficial medical effects of marijuana.”

Many considered the PHS step unnecessary. It originally was introduced under the Clinton administration to ensure marijuana research was as controlled as possible, but it drastically slowed down research as scientists waited for reviews of each application. At times it was easier to study cocaine and heroin than cannabis.

While attitudes may be changing, led by President Obama himself, and including DEA efforts to expand the availability of marijuana for studies, progress remains slow.

As a result, many members of Congress are getting in on efforts to streamline the regulatory process in hopes that it may make the drug available to those who need it.

Just last May, Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., Morgan Griffith, R-Va., Jane Schakowsky, D-Ill., and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., wrote a letter to the Secretary of HHS asking her to remove the PHS barrier.

In a statement Monday, Blumenauer called the White House’s decision “a significant step toward improving an antiquated system that unfairly targets marijuana above and beyond other substances in research.”

He said, however, there still remains a lot to be done and said he’s working on legislation to address the remaining blockades.

While more and more lawmakers’ acceptance of marijuana’s role in medicine might be a welcome surprise, some marijuana supporters are skeptical that additional marijuana studies will significantly change federal policy.

“Ample scientific research already exists to contradict cannabis’ federal Schedule I status -- as a substance without medical utility, lacking acceptable safety, and possessing a high potential of abuse,” Armentano said. “More research is welcome, but unfortunately science has never driven marijuana policy. If it did, we would already have a very different policy in place.”

[Also by Miranda Green: Rand Paul gets high marks from pro-marijuana groups]

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