Lawmakers on opposite sides of the marijuana debate say more potent pot is needed for research

Representatives Andy Harris, Republican of Maryland, and Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Oregon, agree on little about legalizing marijuana. Harris opposes it for recreational use and also thinks that as a medicine it should be reduced. Blumenauer is pushing for pot to be decriminalized.

But both agree on this: Researchers simply don’t have enough access to more potent, high-quality weed, and more growers should be able to grow pot for research.

Their bill that passed the House on Monday — having been introduced in several congresses before — would ease the way for growers at a time when more states are considering decriminalizing marijuana. The House last week passed a bill to legalize marijuana, though its fate in the Senate is more uncertain.

Currently, researchers at universities and government agencies cannot simply walk to a street corner or park to collect weed for their studies, as it is still an illegal substance regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration. For years, the DEA has stipulated that researchers can only use marijuana from one government site, located at the University of Mississippi.

The university maintains what it calls a “secure plot,” where marijuana clusters are grown in cooperation with the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But the pot grown there often has significantly lower levels of THC than what’s typically sold on the street, and since there’s only one government-licensed grower in the United States, researchers are often hampered by bureaucracy and supply problems.

The Blumenauer and Harris Medical Marijuana Research Act would allow more growers to apply to qualify as research growers, expanding the potency and variety of marijuana researchers that researchers can access. The bill would also make it easier for researchers to apply and be approved to study pot, as well as set deadlines for federal agencies to respond to their requests.

It’s unclear exactly how many pot growers would be approved, but they would have to follow the same government standards as the University of Mississippi, and approved growers would not be allowed to sell pot for recreational use as well. They should grow crops exclusively for research.

“Although Dr. Blumenauer and I have very different opinions about what good research will do to inform healthcare providers and policy makers, we have worked together to champion this effort for years – because far too much of the mainstream discussion about marijuana, on both sides, is based on anecdotal evidence, not rigorous and reliable empirical data or studies,” Harris said in a statement to CBS News. “I am very optimistic that we will achieve this legislation beyond the finish line so that we can finally cut red tape and encourage quality research into the real health effects of marijuana.”

Harris, a doctor, opposes recreational marijuana and worries about its medical use because he thinks the benefits are overstated and not necessarily based on science. Blumenauer has worked on marijuana politics for decades and believes pot can be used to help children with epilepsy, veterans with PTSD, cancer patients and many other groups of people. They may disagree on a lot of things, but both members of Congress agree that good empirical research is needed to provide Americans with more accurate information about the effects of pot.

When their teams first started talking to researchers years ago, the researchers raised the same hurdles: the registration process to study weeds is tedious; the offer is limited and homogeneous; and logistical issues mean the jar can arrive late or in poor condition, sometimes even moldy.

So in recent congresses, Harris and Blumenauer have led the charge to pass legislation and get it to the president’s office. This time, they are optimistic that it will work. A similar bill passed the Senate last month.

Proponents of the bill hope to have conversations with their Senate counterparts and reconcile the two bills. And then they hope to get the legislation to the president’s office before the end of the current fiscal year.

“Cannabis laws in this country are being broken, including those that deal with medical research on marijuana,” Blumenauer said during the bill’s passage through the House on Monday. “The growing US cannabis industry operates without the benefit of a robust research program. Instead, we outsource research to Israel, the UK and Canada to our detriment.”

“An example of this policy failure is our failure to effectively test for cannabis impairment,” he continued. “Employees fail drug tests, not because they are impaired, but because they have used cannabis recreationally or medically in the past month. This is just one a symptom of our short-sighted, illogical and destructive set of policies. I stand ready to work with my friends in the Senate to reconcile the differences between this legislation and the Cannabidiol and Marihuana Research Expansion Act passed by the Senate.”

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