After over 50 years of a monopoly for the cultivation of cannabis for research purposes, the DEA is ending the University of Mississippi’s hold on legal marijuana cultivation, and has begun handing out licenses to other entities. Why is the DEA increasing the number of medical cannabis cultivators, and what does this mean?
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The story of the DEA increasing the amount of medical cannabis cultivators isn’t shiny new, but started back in May of 2021. On May 14th, 2021, the DEA announced that it had for the first time allowed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) to three applicants. The applicants are meant to work together to cultivate, process, store, and distribute medical cannabis in order to provide it to appropriate facilities for testing and research. And they are meant to do this according to rules the DEA put into effect at the end of 2020. The MOA means that new approved participants are in compliance with US federal law. One of the hopes in expanding out cultivation, is in expanding out diversity for testing.
Prior to this time, the only entity able to cultivate legal marijuana in the US, was the University of Mississippi, through its National Center for the Development of Natural Products. The University had held that designation as the only cultivator of legal marijuana in the US, since 1968. Over the years, this has caused much controversy, with scientists repeatedly complaining that the quality of what was being produced, was subpar, and that the marijuana grown, infrequently reflected what people were actually smoking. On top of this, the University of Mississippi only provided flower, and not extracts, concentrates, or edibles, making for a limited offering considering today’s cannabis market.
An entire five years ago, back in 2016, the DEA announced it would update policies, and open cultivation to other entities, for the creation of research grade medical cannabis. Of course, five years has gone by since that statement was made. Now, in 2021, the DEA is making good on its promise of five years ago, with its announcement that other parties will be given authorization for marijuana production. At the time the DEA made the announcement, it gave no timeline for the final authorization of new cultivation participants, or when it even expected to get through the mass of pending applications that are still waiting.
How its being done
As a part of the DEA increasing its list of medical cannabis cultivators for research purposes, it came up with updated regulations to guide the growing market. The previous March it had issued proposed rules for cannabis cultivation licensing, for which there was plenty of public commenting. When the DEA released its final version, it came with modifications from its original form. The DEA released this final rule on cannabis cultivation, just as both sides of Congress were pushing though bills to expand cannabis research. These bills, in fact, mandate the DEA to license more growers for cannabis research, which also helps explain why after five years of doing nothing, the DEA chose now to open production to other parties. It didn’t actually have a choice.
The bill passed by the House actually includes a provision that would allow scientists to simply pick up cannabis at a local authorized dispensary, and while many commenters on the DEA rule thought this was a necessary thing that should be a part of the DEA rule, the DEA did not agree, and left a provision like that out.
The DEA has been quick to remind, that under its new regulations, it is the sole owner of all the cannabis produced for research purposes. This is in contrast to how it was before, when the University of Mississippi was the sole provider, and under agreement with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, whereby the DEA had no ownership, or control, of the product. The DEA says it must be this way now to stay in compliance with international law, based on the Single Contention on Narcotic Substances. Apparently, the prior April, the Office of Legal Council, which sits under the Justice Department, decided that the DEA had been in violation of the Single Convention, by managing cannabis along with two other agencies, instead of being the sole agency to oversee it.
There is some question as to how the recent House bill that was passed will mesh with this DEA ruling. The House bill after all, explicitly allows scientists to buy and study products from state-run dispensaries, whereas the DEA ruling doesn’t allow this. According to Paul Armentano, the deputy director of NORML: “Time and time again, the DEA has proven itself full of empty promises when it comes to the issue of facilitating clinical cannabis research in the United States… This history of inaction is why Congress needs to enact legislative reforms.” He went on to point out how the House bill would soon end “the DEA’s longstanding fiefdom” by allowing scientists to go around it, and buy cannabis on their own.
New regulations for potential growers
New producers must show licensing in their own state, and that their customer base is certified for product research. They also have to show what measures and precautions have been taken, to ensure the proper distribution of the plant. One detraction that has gotten widespread backlash, is that any prospective grower who has already legally grown in their own state, is considered to have broken federal law, even if what they did was legal in their specific location. This means a lot of applicants will likely be turned away for violating federal law, even though they’re applying to do the same thing they were doing before, and which was being done legally by state law.
There was also a plethora of commenting related to factoring in an applicant’s growing experience, and ability to produce high quality flowers, which the DEA also, apparently, doesn’t think is very important. Nor does it think its important to accept liability for the product when it’s in DEA care. Which means if any marijuana is damaged or destroyed under DEA care, the agency is not responsible, which would indicate that the cultivators would take the loss, regardless of circumstances.
The agency also rejected caring about diversity or accounting for things like socioeconomic status or race. It said all applications will be treated fairly, with no consideration given to personal circumstances. This can be argued either way. Some prefer the level playing field, others prefer to see provisions made to help those who have been damaged by the system, to get first crack at the new industry. This is what many states have done when legalizing recreational markets.
Sometimes things move slow in government (it’s been five years since the DEA originally said it would do this), and sometimes when things start moving, they pick up speed rather quickly. In the case of the DEA, and increasing the number of medical cannabis cultivators, it’s hard to tell what the ultimate pace will be. While some 500 researchers have been granted authorization around the country, many are waiting on cannabis supplies to get going. Each grower, once it is licensed, will have a certain amount it is able to grow and supply. Right now, however, it’s just a waiting game.
Though the DEA refused to provide any kind of timeline for applications, or any streamlining of the application process, it did say it would give a notice of receipt, within 90 days of receiving an application.
DEA wants more medical cannabis and psilocybin
While the DEA has often moved incredibly slow to get things done, it is picking up the pace of late, though this is likely because Congress has also been enacting new legislation, and the country is getting closer to being in a situation where the majority of the states are going against federal policy. This is actually already the case, what with over 30 states legalized for medical, and 18 legalized for recreational. This is probably why Congress has had its own flurry of new legislation. And possibly why the DEA included the provision about judging applicants for breaking federal drug laws, even if they were following their own state laws when previously growing.
It’s basically penalizing people for following state mandates instead of federal law. Which sounds like a bully move to me, and something that will likely get knocked down in court, as it violates states rights. After all, by holding people accountable for actions done legally under state laws, the federal government is challenging the ability for states to have their own rights, and for those rights to be respected. Just as it’s a bully move, its also a salty one, which really just shows a growing frustration of the federal government at what it can’t control.
Regardless of how much the federal government likes it though, when things change, and the government can’t control it, it has the option of updating itself to save face, or to go down swinging and lose all power. In this case, the DEA shows the government is trying to catch up to the current trajectory that it cannot stop. One of the moves that shows this quite plainly, and which was precipitated by ending the cannabis cultivation monopoly, is that the DEA is now pushing for higher quotas for medical cannabis and psilocybin production for research.
Yes, not just cannabis, but fellow Schedule I Controlled Substance psilocybin, from magic mushrooms, is also being pushed by the DEA. Why? Probably because the psychedelics movement has picked up so quickly, and even the FDA is pushing for getting researched products to market.
On September 2nd, 2021, a notice was put up by the DEA, saying the DEA wants to increase the amount of cannabis flower grown for research to 4,400 pounds, which would be a 500,000-gram increase from current quota numbers. Along with this, cannabis extract production would double, making for a new quota of 500,000 grams. When it comes to psilocybin, the main psychedelic constituent of magic mushrooms, the DEA wants to increase production from 50 grams to 1,500, which is an increase of 2,900%. The DEA also wants to increase production of secondary psychedelic component psilocin (also from magic mushrooms), from 50 grams to 1,000.
Right now, a lot is being spoken about, and a lot of laws are being written and passed, but not much has been done to put things in motion. If the DEA is really increasing the amount of medical cannabis cultivators for research purposes, it will need to get those licenses out, and that marijuana growing.
More interestingly, how will the new research bills that Congress just passed, (and which at times go in contrast to the DEA cultivation ruling), play out? And will there be any friction in the end? It all remains to be seen, but the one thing for sure is that one way or another, there will be way more weed around.
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Disclaimer: Hi, I’m a researcher and writer. I’m not a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson. All information in my articles is sourced and referenced, and all opinions stated are mine. I am not giving anyone advise, and though I am more than happy to discuss topics, should someone have a further question or concern, they should seek guidance from a relevant professional.