It is not often that we are able to announce any good news on the DEA front. Although much progress has been made on cannabis law reform, the federal government has largely dug in its heels at every possible turn. But, according to a Forbes report., the DEA, in an upcoming Federal Register filing, is announcing its plan to grow five times more legal cannabis for research next year than is being grown in 2018. Given the federal government’s notoriously stingy approach to cannabis research, such a substantial shift is worth noting, whether it is a sign of other changes to come or simply a nod toward the legitimacy of the research.

In addition, the agency is reducing production quotas for opioid drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and fentanyl, among others. If one did not know better, one might think the feds are calibrating their drug policies to correspond with reality in some way.

Over 42,000 Americans died from opioid drug overdoses in 2016.  This number reflects a 20 percent increase over the prior year in deaths due to heroin and a 15 percent increase in deaths due to other opioids. It is notable that recent research has shown opiate abuse declines in states that have reformed their cannabis laws.

opioid crisis DEA drug policy Federal Register filing

According to W. David Bradford, public policy professor at the University of Georgia, who was involved in one of those studies:

"We do know that cannabis is much less risky than opiates, as far as likelihood of dependency. And certainly there's no mortality risk.”

A recent press release from the acting administrator of the DEA states:

“We’ve lost too many lives to the opioid epidemic and families and communities suffer tragic consequences every day. This significant drop in prescriptions by doctors and DEA’s production quota adjustment will continue to reduce the amount of drugs available for illicit diversion and abuse while ensuring that patients will continue to have access to proper medicine.”

The agency adds that the new quotas reflect “the total amount of controlled substances necessary to meet the country’s medical, scientific, research, industrial, and export needs for the year and for the establishment and maintenance of reserve stocks."

Even Sessions admits  “the opioid epidemic that we are facing today is the worst drug crisis in American history... Cutting opioid production quotas by an average of ten percent next year will help us continue that progress and make it harder to divert these drugs for abuse."

Although no one from the DEA actually has anything positive to say about cannabis, the fact is that the agency is choosing to vastly increase cannabis production while decreasing opioid drug production. It is not surprising that the agency does not want any pro-cannabis sound bites coming from the federal government – but actions speak louder than words. About 1,000 pounds of cannabis is being grown for research purposes in 2018 and over 5,400 pounds are planned for next year, representing a more than five-fold increase.

Among its many efforts to suppress cannabis over the decades, the federal government since 1968 has limited legal cannabis production for scientific research to the University of Mississippi. Cannabis for research in the US cannot legally be grown elsewhere, and scientists have long complained not only about the difficulty in getting approval to use this cannabis but also about the receipt of extremely low-quality, or even moldy, cannabis once approval is obtained. This is a big problem. Any cannabis user will tell you that for whatever medical or recreational effect you are hoping to receive from the plant, a lower quality product will not work as well. Imagine top research on the potential of medical cannabis relying on bottom shelf brick weed. Not only are prohibitionists themselves stuck in the mid-twentieth century but also the cannabis that is being used to draw highly suspect conclusions about the plant. Ironically, actual cannabis users have left institutional researchers in the dust when it comes to quality. What is the federal government afraid will be found if researchers use the real thing?

Photo of Jeff Sessions

Photo of Jeff Sessions

Toward the end of President Obama’s second term, the administration moved to end the monopoly, putting a process in place to license other institutions to grow cannabis for research. More than two dozen applications have been filed, but the Justice Department under Sessions has stopped the DEA from moving forward on them, preserving the status quo instead. Although Sessions said in October 2017 that allowing additional legal growers for research purposes would be “healthy” and in April 2018 that Senators should expect changes soon, no action has been taken.

This stalling has met resistance from legislators, and a letter last month signed by eight senators called on Sessions to let the Obama-era plan move forward, saying:

“Research and medical communities should have access to research-grade materials to answer questions around marijuana’s efficacy and potential impacts, both positive and adverse. Finalizing the review of applications for marijuana manufacturing will assist in doing just that.”

The new quotas are likely a response to the rising interest in cannabis research and an insufficient cannabis supply. It is unclear if they are also preparation for the licensing of additional growers. But paired with the reduced production quotas for opioids, it could almost seem that the DEA policy move might reflect a changing perception regarding scientific cannabis research and a sincere concern for public health.

Speaking to Forbes, Justin Strekal, political director for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said:

“While the drastic increase in requested production of marijuana by the DEA is a positive sign, significant barriers still exist including but not limited to the NIDA monopoly on cultivation and undue hurdles for researchers to qualify for a permit. It’s time that Congress look at the 28,000 plus peer-reviewed studies currently hosted on the National Institute of Health’s online database and reform federal law by removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act altogether.”

Real research, on cannabis that is representative of what people are actually using, would be a first step in eliminating any doubt that remains on the safety and medical potential of cannabis – not to mention the variety of uses that could be possible considering the full range of available strains, cannabinoids, and terpenes. However, it is almost a certainty that Jeff Sessions will drag his feet on the issue for as long as possible.