In late December 2015, lost amongst the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping, office parties, and spiked egg nog, a group of eight U.S. senators, all Democrats, sent a letter to three high-level bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., one each at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Senators Barbara Boxer (California), Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey (Massachusetts), Cory Booker (New Jersey), Kirsten Gillibrand (New York), Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden (Oregon), and Barbara Mikulski (Maryland) sent a nearly four-page letter to the acting officers of these government agencies. Conspicuously absent from the author list was Republican senator and libertarian torch bearer Rand Paul (Kentucky), possibly due to his presidential campaign.

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Paul, along with junior senators Booker and Gillibrand, in early 2015 sponsored the CARERS Act, bi-partisan legislation that would further force the federal government to recognize a state’s right to legalize cannabis for any reason, reclassify the herb as Schedule II (it is currently Schedule I), eliminate several barriers to research, and — most important — make it easier for military veterans to obtain recommendations for medical cannabis from Veterans Affairs doctors (most notably for PTSD, depression, and anxiety).

More specifically, the target of the letter was Chuck Rosenberg, the Acting Administrator of the DEA, Michael Botticelli, Director of the ONDCP, and Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the Secretary of HHS. Rosenberg made headlines in late 2015 when he discounted the medicinal properties of cannabis and the efficacy gained by millions of patients nationwide, calling med pot a “joke” and saying that cannabis “never has been shown to be safe or effective as a medicine.”

Call for Collaboration

The letter pointed out the need for a wide range of government agencies and research organizations to somehow combine their efforts to reach the goal of more comprehensive medical cannabis research. Wrote the senators in the opening of their letter:

“…there is a need and unique opportunity for federal agencies to collaborate with each other…”

The letter stressed the “unique opportunity” for states to conduct population-based, clinical, “and other basic research on the risks and benefits of medical marijuana.” The letter went on to note the hurdles and barriers to federally-authorized cannabis research that are supported or maintained by a variety of government agencies. It identified the current regulatory scheme for medical cannabis research as “outdated and in desperate need of serious and immediate review.”

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Areas of Focus

The letter focused on five key points, as summarized below:

  1. Supply Limits. The senators questioned the ability of a single farm at the University of Mississippi to produce an adequate supply of high-quality, “medical grade” cannabis for multiple research studies nationwide. The pot farm at the University of Mississippi holds the only bulk manufacture permit issued by the DEA and has cultivated and produced cannabis that many patients, physicians, and experts have labeled low-quality and as offering relatively little medicinal benefit. Thus, any study conducted in the United States using this low-quality herb would result in lower efficacy rates among participants — in essence, rigging the game for those who oppose medical pot.
  2. Rescheduling. Cannabis, which currently is part of Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act, has been argued as a logical candidate for a lower ranking, such as Schedule II or III. The Food and Drug Administration has completed an analysis of the rescheduling of cannabis, and, it appears, HHS has provided “scientific and medical evaluations, as well as a scheduling recommendation” to the DEA. The query from the senators: What was the recommendation, and what is the timetable for review of the recommendation? This section of the letter also calls for the rescheduling of CBD oil.
  3. Interagency Coordination. Echoing one of the primary themes of the letter, coordination and cooperation, its authors cite a research application approval process that is “long, cumbersome, and difficult to navigate.” The senators request that the recipients explain how they “plan to work together to encourage qualified research applications” and asks them to describe the application process for qualified cannabis researchers.
  4. Surveillance and Epidemiological Studies. Such studies would gather data regarding how cannabis is actually being used, both medically and recreationally. The letter specifically calls for an investigation of cannabis use in “diverse populations and with multiple modes of administration.” If this actually occurred, government authorities would gather some rare insight into the economic and social aspects of cannabis consumption among a wide variety of demographic groups.
  5. Coordination with States. The senators would like to see “regular and organized communication” between agencies like HHS and state organizations such as public health departments — especially those in legal medical or recreational states like Michigan, California, Colorado, and Oregon — from which invaluable data can be obtained for further analysis or consideration from a national perspective.

The senators requested responses to their inquiries by January 31, 2016.

Photo credit: MSNBC, CBS News

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