Congress Holds First Cannabis Hearing in 50 Years

More testing is needed, and there are not an adequate number of facilities to do research.

January 16, 2020

WASHINGTON—Yesterday, the Health Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee held the first hearing on cannabis in the history of the committee. The subcommittee chaired by California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) considered six different bills, which could do anything from removing cannabis from the list of schedule 1 drugs to reducing federal impediments to research or reforming marijuana sentencing practices. The witnesses represented the three federal agencies most involved in this space, the National Institute of Health (NIH), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

Prior to 1937, marijuana (commonly spelled marihuana at the time), was legal to import, sell and use in the United States. In August 1937, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 which imposed significant tax burdens on importation and distribution of marijuana, as well some stringent regulations on possession and use. It also made unauthorized possession a criminal offense under the U.S. tax code.

Two laws passed in the 1950s added mandatory minimum sentences for illegal possession of marijuana.  In 1967, the report produced by the “President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Commission of Justice” indicated that much more research into the effects of marijuana was necessary and whether it should be illegal in the United States. In 1969, the Supreme Court ultimately weighed in and declared the 1937 law unconstitutional. This prompted Congress to pass the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, which repealed the Marihuana Tax Act, as well as the mandatory sentencing legislation passed in the 1950s, but at the same time created the schedule system of drugs and listed marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, along with heroin and others as a drug that has no recognized medical benefit. All schedule 1 drugs are illegal to possess. There marijuana remained for the past 50 years.

At yesterday’s hearing, there was significant bipartisan agreement that additional federal research is needed into both marijuana and the recently de-scheduled hemp-derived CBD. Significant differences emerged between those who believe that marijuana should be removed from the list of schedule 1 drugs and those who believe that more research is needed before that decision can be made. 

Of the witnesses, Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse at the NIH, testified that there was clear evidence of harm, particularly in fetal brain development and in adolescent brain function. She did allow that there may be some limited benefits of the drug’s use but “not many.”

Dr. Douglas Throckmorton, deputy director for Regulatory Programs, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research at the FDA, focused much of his testimony on the fact that the FDA is still evaluating the effects of CBD products, and he reminded the committee that those products are still not approved by the FDA for human ingestion or for medical treatment, except for a particular epilepsy drug available by prescription only. Dr. Throckmorton further stressed that the FDA has seen some evidence of harm in regular users of CBD products, including liver problems and some male reproductive impacts. The DEA’s witness, Matthew Strait, senior policy advisory, Diversion Control Division, focused primarily on steps the DEA has taken in recent years to help move along federal research into marijuana.

Under questions from subcommittee members, all three witnesses agreed that additional federal research is necessary and that the current federal system for marijuana research is largely inadequate.  Currently, in order to legally study the impacts of marijuana, a bona fide research institution must apply for a permit in a system governed by all three agencies present at the hearing. If approved, they must obtain their research material—the marijuana itself—from a single source operated by the University of Mississippi. Many of the committee members, often representing states which have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational purposes, made the point that the strains available from the university are very different from that available in the retail marketplace, rendering much of the research ineffective.  

Another common refrain during the hearing was that federal government has created a catch-22 of sorts. Marijuana cannot be de-scheduled without further research, but absent reforms, more research cannot be done without it being de-scheduled. There are more than 30 current applications being reviewed at DEA in the first step in the approval process since the agency expanded the research eligibility requirements in 2016. None have yet been passed to the other agencies, though the DEA has a rulemaking in progress to help speed up the process. 

While no legislation was passed during yesterday’s hearing, Chairwoman Eshoo promised that there would be more hearings where the committee would take testimony from additional non-governmental experts in the future, considering the meeting yesterday as a significant step toward Congress taking action related to marijuana. The hearing followed action late last year by the House Judiciary Committee, which advanced legislation that would decriminalize marijuana federally and review marijuana-related convictions.