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Academic Researchers Stonewalled

There are many academics studying the cultivation of Cannabis plants, but two years after the US Drug Enforcement Administration began accepting requests to grow marijuana for federally approved research, none have been answered, leaving more than two dozen applicants in limbo.

Although some academics are growing the drug without official permission, the inaction is allowing other countries such as UK, Germany and China to take a lead in the field.

The future of the initiative ultimately rests with the DEA’s parent agency, the Justice Department, and officials under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime critic of marijuana use, aren’t eager to advance the applications, according to Wall Street Journal sources. Mr. Sessions has stated publicly he is open to research on the drug but has offered no timeline for processing the applications.

The applicants include a variety of entrepreneurs, as well as a university professor and a former Navy SEAL who wants to study how marijuana might help veterans suffering from chronic pain and post-traumatic stress.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have voiced frustration at the delays, saying Mr. Sessions has repeatedly avoided questions about the status of the applications. The inaction, they say, is stalling much-needed research into the potential health benefits of marijuana as society takes a more tolerant view of its use.

A DEA spokeswoman referred questions to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.

More states have legalized marijuana in recent years for medical or recreational purposes, generating support for the issue from both parties. But pot remains prohibited under federal law, creating a legal gray area.

The evolving political landscape has turned some law-and-order Republicans into advocates for their states’ rights to develop a marijuana industry. It has made unlikely allies of lawmakers such as Sens. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.), and Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), who last month wrote Mr. Sessions for at least the third time urging him to take action on the applications. A bipartisan group of House lawmakers also queried Mr. Sessions recently but received no response.

“It is imperative that our nation’s brightest scientists have access to diverse types of federally-approved, research-grade marijuana to research both its adverse and therapeutic effects,” Sens. Harris and Hatch wrote.

California this year started what could become the world’s largest legal recreational marijuana market. Utah still forbids the drug, but a ballot measure would legalize it for medical purposes, and Mr. Hatch has been a vocal supporter of research.

The DEA under President Obama began seeking applications for new marijuana researchers in August 2016, saying it “fully supports expanding research into the potential medical utility of marijuana and its chemical constituents.”

At least 26 applications have been submitted since then. None has been approved or rejected, and applicants say they have seen little sign of any movement.

DEA officials believed their push to expand research complied with federal law. But the Trump administration threw the effort into doubt by asking the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to review the policy’s legality, the people familiar with the matter said. Officials concluded it violated a 1961 United Nations treaty that aims to curb drug trafficking.

Last spring, Justice Department lawyers privately floated a new policy to expand research that included significant additional restrictions. But DEA officials found it convoluted, saying it would strain the agency’s resources and be almost impossible to implement, one person familiar with the discussion said. The effort has since been on hold.

Individual applications are weighed by the head of the DEA, acting administrator Uttam Dhillon, but lawmakers say it is Mr. Sessions view that matters.  However Dhillon is unlikely to be straining himself to push through the applications. He was head of of Homeland Security’s Office of Counternarcotics Enforcement under President George W. Bush from 2006-2009, and an associate deputy attorney general at the DOJ from 2003-2006. Mist recently he camer to attention as the attorney who told Presdident Trump he could not fire former FBI Director James Comey.

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