Thirty members of Congress, led by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), H. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell on Tuesday demanding an end to the federal monopoly on marijuana research so that more studies can be done by scientists around the nation.
"We write to express our support for increasing scientific research on the therapeutic risks and benefits of marijuana," the letter reads. "We ask that you take measures to ensure that any non-National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded researcher who has acquired necessary Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Institutional Review Board (IRB), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and appropriate state and local authority approval be able to access marijuana for research at-cost without further review." (Read the full text of the letter below.)
The letter comes about two weeks after the House voted to block the Drug Enforcement Administration from using funds to go after medical marijuana operations that are legal under state laws, a measure that Rohrabacher sponsored.
And just last week, a scathing joint report from the Drug Policy Alliance and and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies blasted the DEA, arguing that the agency has repeatedly failed to act in a timely fashion when faced with petitions to reschedule marijuana.
The drug is currently illegal under federal law, and remains classified as a Schedule I substance, a designation the DEA reserves for the "most dangerous" drugs with "no currently accepted medical use." Schedule I drugs, which include substances like heroin and LSD, cannot receive federal funding for research. On three separate occasions -- in 1973, 1995 and 2002 -- the DEA took years to make a final decision about a rescheduling petition, and in two of those cases the DEA was sued multiple times to force a decision.
Last week's report criticized the DEA for overruling its own officials charged with determining how illicit substances should be scheduled. It also accused the agency of creating a "regulatory Catch-22" by arguing there is not enough scientific evidence to support rescheduling marijuana -- while simultaneously impeding the research that would produce such evidence.
"Two weeks ago, we took a very important vote in the House to stop the DEA from interfering in states' medical marijuana programs," Blumenauer said in a statement Tuesday. "Now we need the Administration to stop targeting marijuana above and beyond other drugs when it comes to research. By increasing access for scientists who are conducting studies, we end the Catch-22 of opponents claiming they can't support medical marijuana because there's not enough research, but blocking research because they don't support medical marijuana."
The U.S. government grows marijuana for research purposes at the University of Mississippi in the only federally legal marijuana garden in the U.S. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) oversees the cultivation, production and distribution of these crops -- a process through which the only federally-sanctioned marijuana studies are approved.
Federal authorities have long been accused of only funding marijuana research that focuses on the potential negative effects of the drug. Since 2003, more than 500 grants for marijuana-related studies have received federal approval, with a marked upswing in recent years, according to McClatchy. Only 22 grants were approved in 2003 for cannabis research, totaling $6 million, but in 2012, 69 grants were approved for a total of over $30 million.
Despite these numbers, NIDA has reportedly conducted only about 30 studies to date on the potential benefits of marijuana, according to The Hill.
Currently, 22 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use. Eight other states -- Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin -- have legalized CBD oil, a non-psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that is frequently used to treat epilepsy, for limited medical use or for research purposes.
A number of studies in recent years have shown the medical potential of cannabis. Purified forms may attack some forms of aggressive cancer. Marijuana use has also been tied to better blood sugar control and may help slow the spread of HIV. One study found that legalization of the plant for medical purposes may even lead to lower suicide rates.