WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 26: U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies during a hearing before the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on April 26, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The subcommittee held a hearing on “FY2019 Department of Justice.” (Photo by Alex Wong via Getty Images)
The Attorney General has been stubbornly standing in the way of progress.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a hard-lined marijuana opponent, has been one of the major barriers to federal marijuana legalization and research in the Trump Administration. But on Wednesday (April 25), speaking to a key Senate panel, he signaled that he might slowly be accepting the need to advance marijuana research, calling it “perfectly appropriate to study” and admitting that “there may well be some benefits from medical marijuana.”
However, Sessions’ positive statements about marijuana were dampened by his rejection of current marijuana research, misleading claims about U.S. treaty obligations, and a thinly veiled disbelief that marijuana could serve any major medical purposes.
In one instance, Sessions refused to give credence to marijuana research that shows that opioid overdoses are lower in states with medical marijuana programs. When U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) asked Sessions whether he had considered medical marijuana as a solution to the opioid crisis, he replied: “I’ve asked my staff to take a look at it because science is very important.” However, he followed by saying he doesn’t believe the statistics showing overdose death rates have declined in legal states “will be sustained in the long run.” He supported this position by claiming that: “The American Medical Association is absolutely, resolutely, opposed to marijuana use.”
Earlier this month, however, the American Medical Association (AMA) released a study showing that states with legal marijuana saw a reduction in pharmaceutical drug use. The conclusion of the study reads: “Medical cannabis laws are associated with significant reductions in opioid prescribing in the Medicare Part D population. This finding was particularly strong in states that permit dispensaries, and for reductions in hydrocodone and morphine prescriptions.”
The AMA also recently introduced a policy to encourage marijuana research. As Herb previously reported, this policy says marijuana applications may “include reduction in pain sensation, antispasticity, increased appetite, and antiemesis…”
Sessions did offer some hope to marijuana advocates and lawmakers who are pushing for an increase in marijuana research in the U.S. Currently, researchers looking to study marijuana face a number of debilitating roadblocks. These roadblocks, in turn, have a profound impact on cannabis reform. A significant number of government officials both on the federal and state levels have said that they won’t support cannabis legalization until there’s more research into its medical potential.
Arguably the most significant barrier to cannabis research in the U.S. is the National Institute for Drug Abuse’s (NIDA) monopoly on cannabis for clinical trials, which they’ve been exclusively growing in a facility at the University of Mississippi for more than 40 years. There’s not enough of it to go around, it’s not high quality and, most importantly, it’s not approved to be turned into an FDA-approved medicine. This means as long as the government is the only entity allowed to grow cannabis for research it will be extremely challenging to get a whole plant cannabis medicine on the market for prescription by physicians.
In August 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) finally announced it would be accepting applications from other cannabis growers, which would give researchers access to better quality cannabis in a more timely fashion. But despite receiving at least 25 applications, the DEA has yet to approve any new permits for cultivators. According to sources, Sessions and the Department of Justice, which he oversees, is responsible for this stonewalling of applicants.
When Schatz asked Sessions about this on Wednesday, he responded: “We are moving forward and we will add fairly soon, I believe, the paperwork and reviews will be completed and we will add additional suppliers of marijuana under the controlled circumstances.”
But these remarks were also followed by misleading information about why this process was originally stalled. To defend his previous obstruction of applications to grow research cannabis, Sessions claimed that “there is—a lot of people didn’t know, I didn’t know—a treaty, an international treaty, in which we’re a member, that requires certain controls in that process, and the previous proposal violated that treaty. We’ve now gotten language that I believe complies with the treaty, and will allow this process to move forward.”
But according to Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, “The big argument was that we had the NIDA monopoly cause we were constrained by U.S. international treaty obligations and that was never true.” According to Doblin, the DEA already addressed these concerns in the federal register when they ended the monopoly in 2016.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) also used the hearing to ask Sessions whether he would agree to not stand in the way of Congress’ attempts at federal marijuana reform.
“Mr. Attorney General, we have talked about this in the aftermath of your decision to withdraw the Cole Memorandum,” said Murkowski. “I had been disappointed with that and expressed that I was concerned that the Department of Justice was less than a full partner with the states.”
Murkowski went on to stress the importance of the Department of Justice’s cooperation with state’s individual marijuana regulations. “I would hope that we could have your assurance that within the Department of Justice, that the department will not be an obstacle to the consideration of this sort of legislation that may move forward,” said Murkowski.
Sessions expressed that he was unwilling to make such a commitment.
“Well I can’t make a commitment about what position we would take at this time, until we know exactly what’s involved,” replied Sessions. “And I just feel like, our priorities—look, I’ll be frank—our priorities are fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine. People are dying by massive amounts as a result of those drugs. We’ve had very few, almost zero, virtually zero, small marijuana cases. But if they’re a big dealer, and illegally acting, and violating federal law, our federal agents may work that case. I don’t feel like I’m able to give a pass, some protection, some sanctuary, for it.”
Sessions also said that the Department of Justice intends to ramp up the prosecution of “illicit drugs, gun violators, violent crime, gangs, opioids, and immigration offenses.”
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