Although federal legalization of cannabis may not be imminent, Congress is taking steps to better understand how the complex plant can be researched and regulated.
The background to the hearing "Cannabis Policies for the New Decade" is a post-prohibition landscape in which 11 states have legalized the sale and possession of cannabis for adults and 22 other laws for medical cannabis. At the same time, cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, leading to a number of conflicts and complications in areas such as research, banking, taxes, and trade.
"The states are way ahead of our federal government," said Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican who started selling adult cannabis in 2015, a year after Colorado and the state of Washington started their recreational cannabis programs.
During Wednesday's hearing, lawmakers took a close look at cannabis' chicken-and-egg problem: cannabis remains a List I substance – the most restrictive class and classified as non-medicinal – because of a lack of extensive research. However, research is hampered due to Schedule I classification. Officials from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and the National Institutes of Health testified.
"The federal government has been hiding behind the Catch-22 for a long time," said Massachusetts Democrat Joe Kennedy III.
Matthew Strait, senior policy adviser to the DEA Distraction Control Department, said the agency was trying to remove obstacles to research and was "quick" to introduce additional regulations and increase the number of approved breeders.
"We're considering a number of options," he said.
During their questioning, members of the pre-Congress subcommittee referred to several of the active cannabis bills and asked if cannabis postponement or even cessation would resolve some of these ongoing conflicts.
Cessation of cannabis could actually accelerate research, said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the NIH's National Institute for Drug Abuse.
However, she quickly warned that this "could have unintended negative consequences," including reduced awareness of risks and possible harm to health.