Under the Dome

NC senator wants to remove barriers to research on marijuana

More than half of all states have legalized marijuana for medical use, even though businesses that sell it are breaking federal law.

Sen. Thom Tillis said a national solution is needed. To get there, the North Carolina Republican wants to encourage more research on the drug.

“Instead of creating all these state contracts that are actually running afoul of federal laws that are not being enforced right now, it’s a discussion that we should have here (in Congress),” Tillis told The News & Observer on Wednesday. “It doesn’t make sense to me to premise an entire enterprise on what is not even technically, but literally, an illegal practice.”

Tillis is one of five senators backing the Marijuana Effective Drug Study Act of 2017, which was introduced Wednesday by Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican.

“I’m not for legalizing marijuana anymore than I’m for legalizing over-the-counter sale of opioids. In the same way that we have an opioid addiction problem, we still need pain management,” Tillis said. “Anything that can be safely dispensed, subject to FDA legislation, that can help people who have a medical need, I’m open to it.”

All West Coast and northeastern states have allowed for the prescription, sale and possession of medical marijuana. North Carolina has not, nor has any of its neighbors.

Though federal law prohibits marijuana possession, protections added in 2014 by Congress bar the use of federal funds “to prevent certain states from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions reportedly asked Congress to lift those protections and allow him to prosecute medical-marijuana providers. Sessions has long been an opponent of any form of marijuana legalization.

“I see a line in The Washington Post today that I remember from the ‘80s,” Sessions said at a National Association of Attorneys General event in February. “Marijuana is a cure for opioid abuse. Give me a break. This is the kind of argument that’s been made out there. Almost a desperate attempt to defend the harmlessness of marijuana — or even if its benefits. I doubt that’s true. Maybe science will prove I’m wrong.”

The MEDS Act would allow science to try to do just that. The bill, among other things, encourages more research on the potential medical uses of marijuana, and it makes pot more available for scientific and medical research and in the commercial production of drugs derived from marijuana that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Tillis said his interest in the issue dates back to his time in the North Carolina General Assembly. The legislature considered the effectiveness of cannabinoids, compounds derived from marijuana, in the management of pain – particularly for cancer patients and those undergoing chemotherapy – and to help prevent seizures in children.

“There is a lack of research evaluating the benefits and risks of the therapeutic compounds extracted from the marijuana plant as a possible medication, in large part because of federal barriers that block valuable scientific and clinical research,” Tillis said in a statement.

The federal government allows marijuana to be grown for research purposes, but only at one place – the University of Mississippi. The Obama administration asked for applications from other reseachers, but under Sessions the Department of Justice has not approved any applicants, the Washington Post reported.

Hatch released a pot pun-filled statement about his legislation.

“It’s high time to address research into medical marijuana,” said Hatch, an 83-year-old Mormon from Utah. “Our country has experimented with a variety of state solutions without properly delving into the weeds on the effectiveness, safety, dosing, administration, and quality of medical marijuana. All the while, the federal government strains to enforce regulations that sometimes do more harm than good. To be blunt, we need to remove the administrative barriers preventing legitimate research into medical marijuana, which is why I’ve decided to roll out the MEDS Act.”

Hatch and Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, introduced the legislation with Tillis and Democrats Chris Coons of Delaware and Cory Gardner of Colorado joining as co-sponsors.