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House Subcommittee Holds First Ever Hearing on Cannabis Policies

January 17, 2020

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CONTACTS
Christa Wagner, Senior Legislative Analyst
Daria Grayer, SA- Lead Specialist, Science Policy and Regulation

The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee Jan. 15 held a hearing titled “Cannabis Policies for the New Decade.” Witnesses from agencies that oversee federally-funded research using cannabis — the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) — testified, and six pieces of legislation were considered.

In her opening statement, Chairwoman Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) noted that the “purpose of today’s hearing is to examine the pressing need for medical research about cannabis and its chemical compounds,” as cannabis, or marijuana, is now legal for medicinal use in 33 states and for recreational use in 11 states and Washington, D.C., but it remains illegal at the federal level. Eshoo added that cannabis’s designation as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), defined as having no medicinal value, “restricts legitimate medical research” and leaves researchers in a Catch-22.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Michael Burgess (R-Texas) thanked Rep. Eshoo for responding to his Dec. 2019 letter requesting the hearing and shared his concern about the lack of research to support the safe therapeutic use of cannabis. Rep. Burgess concluded that there is still much work to be done to reduce burdens on conducting research on cannabis, but that “it is critical that the medical community understand what marijuana does to our bodies and our brains at different potencies throughout our lifecycle.”

Full Committee Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-Ore.) shared his concern that marijuana for research can only be obtained from a single DEA licensee through the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). He continued, “Unfortunately, that cannabis is distinct from what is commercially available from state-legal dispensaries … meaning that we have little to no data on the health impacts of products in states that have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational use.” Full Committee Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) added in his opening statement his interest in “hearing about how federal agencies are reducing barriers to research and enabling research on cannabis to thrive.”

In her opening statement, NIDA Director Nora Volkow, MD, described the known adverse health effects of cannabis, including mental illness and developmental delay, as well as its therapeutic potential, especially for chronic pain. Dr. Volkow outlined barriers to increased research on Schedule I substances and cannabis specifically: obtaining and modifying Schedule I registrations, having only one source of cannabis for research purposes, and lack of access to products sold at state marijuana dispensaries. Dr. Volkow concluded, “Rigorous research is essential for understanding how the changing cannabis landscape will affect public health, for guiding evidence-based policy and to help advance therapeutics.”

Douglas Throckmorton, MD, deputy director for regulatory programs at the FDA, testified that FDA has approved one cannabis-derived drug and three synthetic cannabis-related drugs, which are all only available by prescription. With the increase of products from the cannabis derivative cannabidiol (CBD) in state-level marketplaces, the FDA is working to “consider whether and how legal pathways might be established to allow the safe marketing of certain dietary supplements and/or food products containing CBD.”

Matthew Strait, senior policy advisor in the Diversion Control Division at the DEA testified that the agency has drafted a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) regarding new regulations “that would govern persons seeking to become registered with DEA to grow marihuana as bulk manufacturers,” including the evaluation of pending grower applications. The NPRM is now under review by the Office of Management and Budget. In the interim, approving Schedule I researchers remains a top priority for the agency.

Many subcommittee members shared their concern over the growing public health challenge as a result of the slow progress of research on the health effects of cannabis, including impaired driving and vaping-associated lung injury. When questioned, all three witnesses testified that more research is needed, a single source of marijuana for federal research is inadequate, and access to products sold at state dispensaries would help understand the therapeutic effects and health consequences of marijuana.

Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) asked witnesses about educating health care providers regarding the therapeutic use of marijuana, to which Dr. Volkow answered that provider education should be developed based on knowledge, not anecdotes.

Chairwoman Eshoo concluded the hearing by sharing that the subcommittee intends to hold additional hearings on cannabis policies with other stakeholders from the community.

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