The U.S. Senate on Wednesday approved landmark legislation to expand medical marijuana research, marking the first time both chambers of Congress have passed a standalone cannabis bill. The measure, titled the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act, received the approval of the House of Representatives during the summer and now heads to the desk of President Joseph Biden for his consideration.

Democratic Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, the co-sponsor of the legislation in the House along with Maryland Republican Representative Andy Hariss, noted the significance of the legislation after the Senate vote on Wednesday.

“After working on the issue of cannabis reform for decades, finally the dam is starting to break. The passage of my Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act in the House and Senate represents a historic breakthrough in addressing the federal government’s failed and misguided prohibition of cannabis,” Blumenauer, the founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said in a statement. “As we have seen in state after state, the public is tired of waiting for the federal government to catch up. More than 155 million Americans—nearly half of our nation’s population—now reside in states where adult-use of cannabis is legal.” 

In July, the bill was passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 325 to 95, an overwhelming bipartisan majority in a time of intense partisan division in Washington, D.C. Passage of the bill could signal a new era for marijuana policy in Congress, where other legislation including a bill to allow regulated cannabis businesses access to the banking system are awaiting Senate approval. In the Senate, where the legislation was passed by unanimous consent on Wednesday, the bill was sponsored by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley and Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii.

“For far too long, Congress has stood in the way of science and progress, creating barriers for researchers attempting to study cannabis and its benefits,” Blumenauer continued. “At a time when more than 155 million Americans reside where adult-use of cannabis is legal at the state or local level and there four million registered medical marijuana users with many more likely to self-medicate, it is essential that we are able fully study the impacts of cannabis use.”

Legislation Eases Restrictions on Marijuana Research

The bill is designed to ease federal restrictions on researching cannabis, which is still classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. The legislation streamlines the application process for the approval of marijuana-related scientific studies, making it easier for researchers to understand the potential medical benefits of cannabis. 

Under the legislation, the U.S. attorney general would be given a 60-day deadline to approve an application for marijuana research or submit a request for additional information to the research applicant. The bill also includes provisions to encourage the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to support the development of medicines derived from cannabis.

“There is substantial evidence that marijuana-derived medications can and are providing major health benefits. Our bill will make it easier to study how these medications can treat various conditions, resulting in more patients being able to easily access safe medications,” Feinstein said in a statement from the senator’s office. “We know that cannabidiol-derived medications can be effective for conditions like epilepsy. This bill will help refine current medical CBD practices and develop important new applications. After years of negotiation, I’m delighted that we’re finally enacting this bill that will result in critical research that could help millions.”

President Expected To Sign Bill

While campaigning for office in 2020, Biden called for easing the federal restrictions on cannabis research. And last month, he directed the “Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.” In a statement, Schatz appeared to indicate that he expects the president to sign the cannabis research bill passed by Congress.

“The medical community agrees that we need more research to learn about marijuana’s potential health benefits, but our federal laws today are standing in the way of us finding those answers,” said Senator Schatz. “Our bill, which is now set to become law, will remove excessive barriers that make it difficult for researchers to study the effectiveness and safety of marijuana, and hopefully, give patients more treatment options.”

But not everyone is hailing the legislation as a step forward for cannabis policy reform. Shane Pennington, an attorney with the cannabis and psychedelics law firm Vicente Sederberg LLP, wrote in an email to High Times that the legislation “is a terrible terrible bill that will make research harder, not easier.” He explains the legislation unnecessarily complicates research into cannabidiol, among other issues.

“The bill imposes various DEA-registration requirements on entities seeking to handle CBD and/or ‘any [marijuana] derivative, extract, preparation, or compound.’ Under current law, however, neither CBD nor any non-marijuana cannabis ‘derivative, extract, preparation, or compound’ qualifies as a ‘controlled substance.’ Thus, as things stand today, you don’t need any special DEA registration to research them,” Pennington wrote on Substack. “By imposing registration requirements on these otherwise-non-controlled substances, this bill dramatically increases barriers to cannabis research.”

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