Cannabis continues to make history on Capitol Hill — albeit incrementally.
Although federal cannabis legalization may not be imminent, Congress is taking early steps to better understand how to research and regulate the complex plant.
The Health subcommittee of the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Wednesday joined the shortlist of subcommittees that have delved into cannabis. No votes were cast nor policy decisions made, but the 3 1/2-hour hearing — the first-ever cannabis hearing for the Energy and Commerce committee — provided windows into legislators' temperatures on cannabis legalization and the actions undertaken to-date by a trio of government agencies wielding significant influence over how cannabis is researched, possessed and consumed.
Serving as the backdrop for the "Cannabis Policies for the New Decade" hearing is a quasi post-Prohibition landscape where 11 states have legalized the sale and possession of cannabis for adult-use and 22 others have medical cannabis laws in place. At the same time, cannabis remains illegal federally, creating a rash of conflicts and complications in areas such as research, banking, taxes and commerce.
"The states are way ahead of where we are federally," Representative Greg Walden, a Republican from Oregon, which launched adult-use cannabis sales in 2015, a year after Colorado and Washington state started their recreational cannabis programs.
During Wednesday's hearing, legislators took a crack at cannabis' chicken-and-egg problem: Cannabis remains a Schedule I substance -- the most restrictive class and identified as having no medical use -- because of a lack of comprehensive research. Research, however, is hindered because of the Schedule I classification. Officials from the US Food and Drug Administration, the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Institutes of Health provided testimony.
"The federal government has hidden behind that Catch-22 for a long, long time," said Representative Joe Kennedy III, a Democrat from Massachusetts.
The University of Mississippi remains the sole supplier of research-grade cannabis for federally approved trials. And the cannabis that's available for research has been assailed by scientists as "sub-par" material that does not accurately represent the diverse array of products — and potencies — available for sale in states that have legalized recreational cannabis.
Matthew Strait, senior policy adviser for the DEA's Diversion Control Division, said the agency has sought to remove barriers to research and is moving "expeditiously" to craft additional regulations and expand the number of licensed cultivators.
The FDA's ongoing review of the wildly popular cannabis compound cannabidiol (CBD) remains ongoing, said Dr. Douglas Throckmorton, deputy director for regulatory programs at the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation of Research. He indicated his agency is evaluating research to determine CBD's safety and efficacy, weighing non-drug pathways for compounds derived from federally legal hemp, and creating avenues for new drug development involving cannabis compounds.
"We're looking at a full range of options," he said.
During their questioning, subcommittee members referenced several of the active cannabis-related bills before Congress, and asked if rescheduling or even descheduling cannabis would solve some of these ongoing conflicts.
Descheduling cannabis may indeed accelerate research, said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the NIH's National Institute on Drug Abuse.
However, she quickly cautioned that doing so "may have unintended, negative consequences," including decreased perceptions of risk and potential harms to health.