Today (August 26), the Drug Enforcement Administration announced plans to create new regulations to expand scientific and medical research on marijuana in the US. Scientists hope the proposal will allow additional growers to enter the supply chain and hopefully bump up the quality of the material.

In 2016, the agency said it would accept applications for new growers, but as Nature reported in May, dozens of applications had been submitted but none had been reviewed, approved, or denied. The statement issued today notes that the pending applications would be decided on after the new growing regulations are established.

“There’s cause for some celebration,” Sue Sisley of the Scottsdale Research Institute tells The Scientist. But, she adds, it’s not clear how long it will take for them to first get the new rules enacted before they can make finally decisions on applications. “We all...

Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) was one of the organizations that had filed an application for DEA approval to grow marijuana for research, so scientists there could study whether cannabis can reduce the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in military veterans. Sisley recently completed a clinical trial testing the hypothesis using cannabis provided by the University of Mississippi, the only supplier the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has had a contract with to grow marijuana for research for nearly 50 years.

The cannabis that researchers receive from NIDA is “a moldy, green powder that is diluted with stems, sticks, leaves . . . it’s not just the flowering tops of the plants,” Sisley says. Essentially, researchers are receiving suboptimal plant material that does not “mimic the real-world flower,” making it hard to replicate what individuals are using outside of research studies, she says. 

A study published on bioRxiv in 2016 confirmed Sisley’s assessment of the NIDA-contracted cannabis, which had 10–15 percent less THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, than the least potent cannabis sold at legal dispensaries, Science reported then. That study was published just weeks after DEA’s 2016 announcement to accept applications from new growers and offered hope to Sisley and others who wanted access to higher-quality cannabis for their research. But because DEA never implemented the policy on new growers that it promised, “we’re exactly where we were three years ago” in terms of research, says Nolan Kane, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado Boulder and a coauthor of the study on the quality of NIDA cannabis.

DEA’s announcement in 2016 seemed to indicate that the federal government understood researchers’ needs and planned to approve new growers of research-grade cannabis. But when SRI submitted its application to become one of those growers and hadn’t heard anything in more than two years, the institute decided to file a petition to the US Court of Appeals in Washington, DC. Late last month, the court ruled the DEA would need to respond within 30 days to SRI’s petition and so the DEA released the public statement. In an email to The Scientist, Katherine Pfaff, a spokesperson for the agency, says that “until recently, the demand for research-grade marijuana was limited, and a single grower was sufficient to meet the demand of the research community. DEA believes that it would be beneficial to have additional growers given the increased demand for research-grade marijuana.”

NIDA says in an emailed statement that “there has been no major increase in the level of demand for cannabis by researchers in recent years” and that it has “expanded the inventory of marijuana available for research.” It noted that more information about the strains available is published on the agency’s website. A study published earlier this year again pointed out that what the NIDA supplier provides to researchers is still vastly different from what’s being sold at marijuana dispensaries, according to Nature. “The bottom line is scientists need access to options . . . we need to be able to access all of the diverse cultivars that are readily available in these regulated markets,” Sisley says.

Ashley Yeager is an associate editor at The Scientist. Email her at ayeager@the-scientist.com.

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