Is the End of Prohibition Nigh?

If the United States isn’t already at the tipping point for ending marijuana prohibition nationwide, we’re certainly inching ever closer.

On August 26, the DEA announced a significant shift in federal policy. For the past 50 years, only the University of Mississippi has been authorized to grow marijuana for research purposes, but now the DEA plans to expand the crop of growers approved to produce plants for research.

The move comes in response to a major jump in the number of people allowed by the DEA to study cannabis: It increased by better than 40 percent from January 2017 to January 2019 (384 to 542).

Over the same time period, the DEA more than doubled the amount of marijuana production grown for federally approved research purposes – and this year’s crop is the largest in five years.

“I am pleased that DEA is moving forward with its review of applications for those who seek to grow marijuana legally to support research,” said U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr. “The Department of Justice will continue to work with our colleagues at the Department of Health and Human Services and across the Administration to improve research opportunities wherever we can.”

This move has been hailed by cannabis researchers who have long complained that the UMiss crops don’t offer the necessary quality and diversity to yield appropriate samples for research. Dr. Sue Sisley, who heads the Scottsdale Research Institute in Arizona and works with 1906 as a research director, says, "The bottom line is scientists need access to options.” In June, Sisley filed a lawsuit in federal court demanding the DEA take action, and the August 26 DEA decision came just ahead of the legal deadline for the agency to respond.

Members of Congress from both parties applied pressure as well. In May, a bipartisan group of 30 U.S. representatives wrote to Barr and the DEA's acting administrator, Uttam Dhillon, urging them to speed along improvements to the supply of research-grade marijuana in order to "provide better raw materials for research."

Sisley recently completed an FDA-approved clinical trial to study marijuana as a treatment for PTSD in veterans. The results haven’t yet been published, but she says that the quality of the marijuana she received from UMiss was far below what is commonly available in dispensaries, and she believes that impacted the study results.

Even with the DEA decision, it may take some time before cannabis researchers have more options, but the outlook for broader legalization continues to improve. While the opinions of the decision makers in the federal government can be challenging to follow, Jim Carroll, the federal drug czar, said recently that legalization should be left to the states. President Trump appears to agree. In addition, New York State’s marijuana decriminalization bill went into effect August 28, and supporters aim to push for more widespread legalization in the next legislative session.

Even more optimistically, U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told a local news channel that the ground has been laid for federal legalization to come possibly by the end of this year.