Congressional Cannabis Hearing Highlights a Need for Cautious Reform

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On January 15, 2020, the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee held a hearing on cannabis titled “Cannabis Policies for the New Decade.” This hearing featured witnesses from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The hearing featured a discussion between the witnesses and committee members about changes that could be made to the law or to agency regulations that could accelerate research into the therapeutic potential and safety risks of cannabis and cannabidiol (CBD).

Several committee members voiced their concern about the regulatory restrictions that researchers must overcome to obtain approval to conduct cannabis research and how the FDA and DEA can only loosen those restrictions after additional research has been completed. Many researchers and institutions are hesitant to attempt this type of research because it could place their federal funding in jeopardy. In addition to how difficult it is to obtain approval to conduct this research, the committee members also criticized the fact that researchers can only obtain research cannabis from a single site, and cannabis from this source does not reflect the diversity of products that consumers are currently obtaining on the market. These challenges put researchers in a difficult position, and they have galvanized Congress to reform the process through legislation.

Additionally, without substantive changes, consumers will not be able to accurately assess the safety of the products they are purchasing, and they will continue to be misled by manufacturers of dietary supplements, food products, and cosmetics who are making unauthorized health claims about their products. Such CBD products have proliferated after Congress removed hemp-derived CBD from the Controlled Substances Act’s definition of marijuana in 2018. These products are available to consumers across the country and are often marketed with sensationalized claims about their therapeutic potential. While there is some evidence suggesting that CBD can be useful options for treating certain conditions, the witnesses stressed the importance of providing accurate information to consumers by underscoring the potential adverse effects of cannabis, which can include liver damage, addiction, paranoia, and psychosis. Without a regulatory pathway for these products, manufacturers of dietary supplements will not be required to abide by safety or quality standards that would help protect consumers from adulterated, unsafe, or misbranded products.

While the committee members and witnesses shared many exchanges about the frustrations that the current research landscape presents, some committee members voiced their concerns about other issues, such as how federal cannabis policy has affected minority populations, criminal justice, and problems related to product labeling and packaging. In terms of legal changes, some committee members voiced support for rescheduling cannabis, while others expressed that removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) would be going too far. Several members of the committee supported in making it easier for researchers to obtain approval for cannabis research through agency regulation, which would not require an act of Congress. Overall, the committee reached consensus on the need to ground policy in science and the need to reform the research pipeline to advance our understanding of the cannabis plant and its therapeutic potential.

You can view a recording of the hearing here.

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