DEA Announces Plans to Increase Marijuana Growing Licenses for Research

Cannabis oil is loaded into a capsule at a Colorado extraction facility.
Jacqueline Collins
Cannabis oil is loaded into a capsule at a Colorado extraction facility.
The prospect for more federal marijuana research improved significantly today, August 26, when the Drug Enforcement Administration announced it would begin to "facilitate and expand scientific and medical research for marijuana in the United States."

With only one marijuana cultivation designated for federally approved research purposes over the past fifty years — located at the University of Mississippi — proponents both for and against cannabis legalization have complained about the DEA's lack of progress on significant research. Applications to grow marijuana for federal studies had been stalled for several years under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and the agency was even sued by a researcher it had permitted to conduct cannabis research over the lack of quality marijuana to use for her studies.

Dr. Sue Sisley's Scottsdale Research Institute had filed suit in June, and days before the DEA was set to appear in a federal appeals court to explain why it hadn't processed over thirty applications for potential marijuana growers, it suddenly announced plans to register additional growers to supply the greatly increased demand in research. According to the announcement, which calls the plant "marihuana," new marijuana growing applications will be processed "in the near future." The DEA also clarified that industrial hemp is no longer under the same restrictions, since it was federally legalized in 2018.

“DEA is making progress in the program to register additional marijuana growers for federally authorized research, and will work with other relevant federal agencies to expedite the necessary next steps,” said DEA administrator Uttam Dhillon in a statement. “We support additional research into marijuana and its components, and we believe registering more growers will result in researchers having access to a wider variety for study.”

The decision was met with approval by current AG William Barr, a noted critic of recreational marijuana use and federal legalization. “I am pleased that DEA is moving forward with its review of applications for those who seek to grow marijuana legally to support research,” Barr said in a statement. “The Department of Justice will continue to work with our colleagues at the Department of Health and Human Services and across the Administration to improve research opportunities wherever we can.”

Those hoping to grow said marijuana for studies still need to wait for their applications to be reviewed by the DEA, though, and the department also notes plans to "adjust" federal growing regulations before issuing any new licenses.

Sisley, the DEA-registered researcher who sued the department over the lack of quality cannabis provided by the federal government, warns that today's "historic victory" could still end up in years of roadblocks if the DEA doesn't finish the regulator adjustments and application reviews in the near future as promised.

"Now we just need to keep the DEA’s feet to the fire and make sure they follow their own timelines they laid out in today’s public notice," Sisley says in a statement. "It could take years to get access to newly cultivated cannabis material for research — DEA/DOJ can slow-roll this for many years to come, leaving progress of medical cannabis research in limbo indefinitely. But at least that door is now theoretically kicked open.”

According to the DEA, the number of individuals registered to study marijuana and marijuana derivatives increased by 40 percent from 2017 to 2019, leading the DEA to more than double the production quota for federally approved marijuana research. However, part of Sisley's lawsuit claimed that the marijuana produced at Ole Miss is far less potent than strains available in dispensaries or on the black market. The limited strains from Mississippi are also mixed together, Sisley said, which affects the correlations between strain and effect; in fact, she added, the quality of the cannabis was so bad that her research on how cannabis can be used to treat post- traumatic stress disorder may have been compromised.

Sisley is one of the 33 applicants waiting to hear back from the DEA about a request to cultivate; her research is based in Arizona. Two of the growing applications are from Colorado, where the state health department and Marijuana Enforcement Division have already begun rolling out state licenses for medical marijuana research.