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Attorney General Sessions still hesitant on cannabis reform

U.S. Attorney General and former Alabama senator Jeff Sessions has been a thorn in cannabis activists’ side for decades. The ostracised member of the Trump Administration has been strongly against cannabis legalization and research for years, but now seems to be viewing the topic with a more open mind.

When speaking to a Senate panel in late April, Sessions admitted that there may be a justification for more cannabis research, saying that it was “perfectly appropriate to study” the herb. Sessions even now says that medical marijuana may have “some benefits.”

Unfortunately, the encouraging murmurs that Sessions made to the Senate panel about cannabis were balanced out by a rejection of existing research into the herb and inaccuracies when discussing America’s treaty obligations – the US is signed up to the UN’s 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Sessions is also reluctant to believe that cannabis could have medical purposes, unsurprising after the decades he has put into opposing it.

An example of this was given in Sessions’ refusal to give credibility to studies showing that states with working medical cannabis programs have lower opioid overdose rates than those which don’t. The idea that cannabis could hold the key to ending, or at least controlling the opioid crisis was raised to Sessions by Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii.

The Attorney General said that while he has instructed staff to assess this research, he threw in the caveat that he doesn’t think any reduction in opioid overdoses will be sustained. Sessions used the American Medical Association’s (AMA) opposition to marijuana as the foundation of his argument.

But it seems that the AMA is more open to medical cannabis than it once was, releasing a study in April which shows that pharmaceutical drug use has declined in legalized states. The study concluded, therefore, that medical cannabis legislation is linked to a reduction in opioid prescriptions among the “Medicare Part D” group. States where dispensaries are allowed experienced an even greater fall in prescription drug use, with morphine and hydrocodone prescriptions declining the most.

It is now AMA policy to support cannabis research. The policy states that cannabis is antispasmodic, can enhance appetite and reduce pain sensation. All three of these properties are thanks to the effects of cannabinoids in the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

Cannabis activists and lawmakers did take something from Sessions’ comments though. Those who would simply like to see an increase in American cannabis research have grown frustrated at the unnecessary obstacles stopping these studies from taking place. These have stopped marijuana reform from progressing at the rate it could have and creates a vicious circle. Lawmakers say that they want to see more confirmation of cannabis’ medical potential before supporting it, yet without the studies, reaching that level of proof is difficult.

The National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) may be the body doing the most damage to cannabis research in America. The organization has a monopoly on growing cannabis products for clinical trials and have been growing it at the University of Mississippi for more than four decades. Unfortunately, there is a shortage in supply and the cannabis being cultivated is of mediocre quality. Furthermore, this cannabis is not eligible to be turned into a medicine that can receive FDA approval. With the federal government having a stranglehold on growing and studying cannabis, and conducting research at a snail’s pace, it’s going to be an almighty task to get prescription, whole-plant cannabis medicine into the hands of patients.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been a thorn in the side of cannabis supporters for many years, but in August 2016 they announced that other cannabis cultivators could apply to grow cannabis for research purposes. However, hopes have been somewhat dashed since, with the DEA not accepting any of the (at least) 25 applications that they have received from growers. The Department of Justice and Sessions himself are behind the lack of response, say sources.

Sessions said that “we will add fairly soon,” when questioned on this by Senator Schatz. The Attorney General added that following the completion of paperwork, more suppliers will be approved to supply cannabis for controlled research.

However, some of Sessions other comments have created doubt as to whether this is really the case. He said that past obstruction of cannabis cultivation applications happened due to America’s involvement in international treaties, perhaps referring to the 1971 UN convention. Sessions says that past proposals into extending research would have violated this international treaty – however, a new clarification on language will allow the U.S. to finally proceed with more comprehensive cannabis research.

Yet Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies founder and executive director Rick Doblin has dismissed the claims that America’s international commitments have stalled cannabis science at home. Doblin said that possible issues with the U.S’ treaty obligations were resolved by the DEA in 2016, when the agency brought and end to the NIDA’s monopoly.

Republican senator for Alaska, Lisa Murkowski asked Sessions if he would agree to not intervene with Congress’ efforts to enact cannabis reform at federal level. Murkowski expressed her disappointment at Sessions withdrawing the Cole Memorandum, adding that she was “concerned” about how the Department of Justice had acted with states.

Murkowski doubled down on how important it was for the Department of Justice to cooperate with states that have introduced cannabis legislation. The senator said that she hoped that Sessions would give his assurance that the department would not stand in the away of state reform or Congress’ work for federal reform.

However, a cautious Sessions was not prepared to make such an absolute commitment to Murkowski, whipping up uncertainty about how serious the Attorney General really is for cannabis study and reform.

Sessions said that, for now, his priorities were cocaine, heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamine – citing the number of deaths that these drugs were causing. He said that there were “virtually zero” cases with cannabis. He said that big dealers could still be the targets of the feds, since their actions were still in violation of federal law, and that he didn’t want Washington to give a “pass” or a “sanctuary” for acting illegally.

According to Sessions, the Department of Justice is keen to increase the number of prosecutions for immigration offenses, violent crime, gang proliferation and crimes relating to opioids.

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