Some 36 states now permit marijuana to be used medically, and 17 allow recreational use. Yet researchers who wish to study the drug’s health effects have been limited since 1968 to a single legal supplier of the drug, the University of Mississippi. That looks set to change soon, as the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced Friday (May 14) that it has sent memorandums of agreement (MOAs) to hopeful growers “outlining the means by which the applicant and DEA will work together to facilitate the production, storage, packaging, and distribution of marijuana under the new regulations.”
“We were euphoric. This is a victory for scientific freedom. It’s finally a chance to use real-world cannabis in our own studies and supply genetically diverse cannabis to scientists across the nation,” says Sue Sisley, the president and principal investigator at the Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI), tells Science.
According to Science, some researchers, such as Sisley, say marijuana from the University of Mississippi is low-quality, while others don’t see an issue with its quality but nonetheless welcome the prospect of additional suppliers. “Older people are not going to smoke. . . . They will take a brownie, a gummy. New manufacturers could give us those products,” Igor Grant, the director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego, tells the publication. “What’s needed is more product and more diversity.”
The DEA’s action was a long time coming. In 2016, during the final year of President Barack Obama’s administration, the agency announced that it would begin accepting applications from aspiring new growers of marijuana for research. But according to The Wall Street Journal, during President Donald Trump’s tenure, officials such as then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions opposed the change on the grounds that it might violate a United Nations treaty against drug trafficking, and the application process stalled. In 2019, the DEA announced plans to develop new regulations that would govern growing for scientific and medical use, and late last year, the new rule was finalized.
The DEA’s latest announcement did not say how many MOAs had been sent out, but the Journal identifies three organizations that have received them, including SRI. “To the extent these MOAs are finalized, DEA anticipates issuing DEA registrations to these manufacturers. Each applicant will then be authorized to cultivate marijuana—up to its allotted quota—in support of the more than 575 DEA-licensed researchers across the nation,” the agency says in Friday’s announcement.
“This is a monumental step,” George Hodgin, whose firm Biopharmaceutical Research Company received an MOA, tells the Journal. “This type of long-term thinking from the government will allow companies like ours to pioneer a federally legal cannabis market for products that are tested and approved to help the public.”