PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – President Joe Biden’s decision to sign the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act on Dec. 2 is a game changer for scientists whose research has long been held back by federal regulations. 

The bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., establishes a new, separate registration process to facilitate research on marijuana. 

It aims to remove red tape and clear obstacles to allow for more research on cannabis. 

“I think as scientists, we just want to do good work. And this allows us to do good work,” said Dr. Bonnie Nagel, a professor of psychiatry and the senior associate vice president for research at Oregon Health & Science University. 

One way the bill will help scientists to do better research is by granting them more opportunities to study a wider variety of strains and products. 

For more than 50 years, the Drug Enforcement Agency had allowed the University of Mississippi to be the only place in the U.S. that could grow marijuana for federally-approved research. The Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act changes that by allowing places like higher education institutions, practitioners and manufacturers to become registered to grow and make their own products for medical research. 

Nagel said the strain the National Institution of Health has allowed scientists to study over the years does not reflect the products people can buy on the shelves in states where recreational marijuana has become legal. She said the THC level in plants grown in the federally-approved facility has historically been quite low. 

“It really does not reflect what people are actually using in the real world,” Nagel said. “So this is going to really, I think, send that on a different trajectory and allow us to know what are people using? How are people using it? What are the benefits and what are the harms and these are not things that we have been able to accurately address previously.”

This new bill makes it possible for scientists to conduct clinical trials to understand the potential health benefits of cannabis. Research like this can not only inform them on who can benefit from cannabis use, but also who could be harmed by it. 

Scientists at OHSU have already been studying cannabis, to the extent that was legally possible. Nagel said there is promising research suggesting cannabis could have some pharmacological benefit in areas like anxiety and PTSD, and also for pain and sleep. 

However, in terms of OHSU’s scientists’ plans on how they’ll expand their research under this new federal law, that remains to be determined. 

They’re still figuring out how to adjust their research and dreaming up new ideas. 

It’s also too soon to say whether OHSU will begin growing its own cannabis plants for research, Nagel said. 

OHSU said in addition to allowing them to grow cannabis for research and conduct clinical trials, the new bill will allow them to study the effects of different strains; and study the differences between eating, smoking and vaping marijuana. 

Nagel feels the previous constraints placed on marijuana studies have thwarted research in the past and believes this new bill will be transformative in scientists’ ability to work in the area of cannabis. 

Rep. Earl Blumenauer in Portland, September 6, 2022 (KOIN)
Rep. Earl Blumenauer in Portland, September 6, 2022 (KOIN)

Blumenauer, who’s co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, released a statement the day Biden signed the landmark piece of legislation. He said it’s the first standalone federal marijuana reform law that’s been enacted in the U.S. since the adoption of the Controlled Substances Act in 1971. 

The statement, which he released with other members of the Cannabis Caucus said, “The Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act will make it easier to study the impacts and potential of cannabis. Research is foundational for the path forward on cannabis policy.” 

The representatives said they celebrate the bill’s passage, but will continue to focus on other cannabis reforms. They’re currently working on passing the SAFE Banking package, the Veterans Equal Access Act, the PREPARE Act, and the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act. 

Marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance at the federal level. The DEA said this means it has a high potential for abuse and currently has no accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. 

While the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act does not declassify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, it could help pave the way to a reclassification in the future. 

Like researchers at OHSU, scientists at Oregon State University say they look forward to the research this new bill will allow them to conduct. However, they said if the federal government went so far as to de-schedule marijuana, it would make all research involving marijuana much easier. 

OSU will continue to review its policies related to marijuana and cannabidiol, but is not currently aware of any immediate plans to pursue marijuana research more actively in light of softening federal regulations. 

“We do have one study that is recruiting participants to look at the emotional and health effects of recreational use of cannabis. That study went through the university’s Institutional Review Board, which reviews in advance research involving human subjects, and our cannabis working group, and also was discussed by university leaders. Had this law been in effect at the time this research was proposed, it would have been a benefit to this study as it was conducted,” OSU spokesperson Steve Clark said in a statement. 

Plants growing at the Oregon State University Global Hemp Innovation Center, 2022 (OSU)
Plants growing at the Oregon State University Global Hemp Innovation Center, 2022 (OSU)

OSU currently has the nation’s largest research center devoted to the study of hemp and Clark said the school’s College of Agricultural Sciences will continue to invest heavily in hemp research. 

According to the new marijuana bill, the Secretary of Health and Human Services must submit a report on several things related to the bill no later than a year after it was enacted. The report must include things like the potential therapeutic effects of cannabidiol or marijuana on serious medical conditions; the potential effects of marijuana, including the effect of increasing delta-9 THC levels on the human body; and the barriers with researching marijuana or cannabidiol in states that have legalized their use.