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GOP Congressman Claims Top Federal Drug Official ‘Adamantly Opposes’ Marijuana Rescheduling, But Agency Endorsed FDA Recommendation

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A GOP congressman is claiming that the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) opposes marijuana rescheduling—despite the fact that her agency officially concurred with a recommendation to implement the reform as well as the director’s repeated public comments criticizing research barriers imposed by cannabis’s current Schedule I status.

While Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) said during a House Appropriations Committee hearing on Thursday that NIDA Director Nora Volkow is “adamantly opposed” to rescheduling cannabis, the agency declined to substantiate that position in a statement to Marijuana Moment—instead pointing to the director’s past remarks and other materials describing how researchers face onerous obstacles in conducting studies into cannabis due to its Schedule I status under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

In response to a directive from President Joe Biden, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) carried out a review into marijuana scheduling and ultimately advised the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to move it from Schedule I to Schedule III. “NIDA concurs with this recommendation,” the letter transmitting the matter to DEA said.

Nonetheless, Harris told the head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) during Thursday’s hearing that Volkow herself is opposed to the reclassification, as well as any move to make “marijuana more broadly available.” The congressman asked FDA Commissioner Robert Califf whether he’d discussed the issue with the NIDA director and then pressed him on whether he was “aware” of her position.

“I’m aware of her opinions, yes,” Califf said, notably declining to push back on the rescheduling claim.

For drug policy observers, that might raise eyebrows. Volkow has certainly voiced concerns about the potential impacts of broader availability of marijuana products, but she’s been nothing if not consistent about her position that the Schedule I status of drugs—including marijuana and psychedelics, for example—inhibits necessary research because it requires researchers to jump through bureaucratic hoops. She’s said she personally hesitates to conduct cannabis research for that reason.

NIDA didn’t directly contest the congressman’s characterization of the director’s position on rescheduling in a statement after the hearing. Instead, it reiterated that the “HHS recommendation to reschedule marijuana is currently undergoing review with DEA,” adding that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that NIDA falls under “does not comment on pending decisions.”

However, the NIDA email to Marijuana Moment did cite Volkow’s 2020 comments during a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, where she testified that “legal and regulatory barriers continue to present challenges to advancing cannabis research,” including the Schedule I designation of marijuana under the CSA.

“Obtaining or modifying a Schedule I registration involves significant administrative challenges, and researchers report that obtaining a new registration can take more than a year,” she said in the cited testimony. “It would be useful to clarify aspects of the CSA that have been sources of confusion and administrative burden for the research community.”

The NIDA email also linked to a 2017 National Academies report titled “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research,” which explained how the process of obtaining registrations to study Schedule I drugs can be a “daunting experience for researchers.”

“The substantial layers of bureaucracy that emerge from cannabis’s Schedule I categorization is reported to have discouraged a number of cannabis researchers from applying for grant funding or pursuing additional research efforts,” it said.

“There are specific regulatory barriers, including the classification of cannabis as a Schedule I substance, that impede the advancement of cannabis and cannabinoid research,” one concluding point reads.

Again, NIDA didn’t explicitly dispute the idea that Volkow personally opposes rescheduling as Harris suggested, and as Califf seemed to tentatively acknowledge, but the director has made abundantly clear that the current system needs to change in some capacity. A Schedule III reclassification wouldn’t legalize marijuana or make it more broadly available as far as federal law goes, but advocates have touted the reform as one means of reducing the administrative burdens on researchers.

Harris, however, is a vociferous opponent of cannabis reform, and he told DEA Administrator Anne Milgram in February that he believes FDA came to a “misguided conclusion” to recommend rescheduling cannabis—challenging the health agency’s scientific standards and imploring DEA to dismiss them as it prepares to make a final determination.

He raised a similar point during Thursday’s hearing with the FDA commissioner, stating that he thinks it’s “absolutely wrong” that the agency used a new two-pronged review process to reach its rescheduling conclusion, as opposed to the five-factor review it previously utilized. He said he understood the decision, however, because marijuana—as a chemically complex botanical—could not be determined to fit a different classification other than Schedule I under the prior method.

“Well, obviously marijuana has chemistry that is not known and reproducible because, if you go into a marijuana dispensary, there are about—I don’t know, I haven’t been in one— but there are probably 50 different products, all with a different THC concentration, CBD concentration,” he said. “Marijuana is not a drug. It is a group of things.”

Harris previewed his line of questioning at the beginning of the hearing, emphasizing that he has “serious concerns about the actions FDA took when recommended” rescheduling. He said the two-factor review the agency used “lacks both substances and data,” and FDA “ignored several factors,” including the impacts of daily marijuana use and THC-related traffic fatalities.

“The American people deserve to know the effect that modern marijuana has on the human body,” he said.

Califf was also pressed on the cannabis rescheduling issue during a separate House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing last week, where he said there’s “no reason” for DEA to “delay” making a scheduling decision.

He also said that, “as a child of the sixties,” it would “be nice if in my lifetime we came up with a regulatory scheme” for cannabis.

The commissioner’s comments come as the Biden administration continues to tout its role in issuing cannabis pardons and directing the marijuana scheduling review, including in a presidential proclamation declaring April “Second Chance Month.”

President Joe Biden also discussed the marijuana actions in a historic context last month, during his State of the Union address.

Vice President Kamala Harris also urged DEA to finish its review and reschedule marijuana “as quickly as possible” while meeting pardon recipients for a roundtable event at the White House last month. Behind closed doors, she also said “we need to legalize marijuana.”

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Monday that it’s now up to the Justice Department to make a final decision on cannabis scheduling, adding that the top federal health agency’s recommendation to reclassify marijuana was “guided by the evidence.”

A DEA official recently said it sometimes takes up to six months for DEA to complete its analysis of health officials’ scheduling recommendations—which is just about how long it has now been since the agency began its current cannabis assessment.

Meanwhile, last month, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra defended his agency’s rescheduling recommendation during a Senate committee hearing and also told cannabis lobbyist Don Murphy that he should pay DEA a visit and “knock on their door” for answers about the timing of their decision.

Certain DEA officials are reportedly resisting the Biden administration’s rescheduling push, disputing the HHS findings on marijuana’s safety profile and medical potential, according to unnamed sources who spoke with The Wall Street Journal.

Americans Use Marijuana At Nearly The Same Rate In Legal And Non-Legal States, Suggesting Criminalization Doesn’t ‘Curtail’ Consumption, Gallup Poll Finds

Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

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