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Hemp has been removed as a Schedule I drug, making it easier for researchers to access. Getty Images
  • Federal officials have announced they are reducing regulations on hemp.
  • The move clears the way for this form of cannabis to be used more often in research.
  • Experts say this is a good first step, but more needs to be done to increase the supply of cannabis available to researchers.

It’s the news medical cannabis researchers had been waiting for.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has announced that it’s easing up on the regulation of hemp, the form of cannabis containing 0.3 percent or less of THC, the component in marijuana that makes you high.

It’s the first confirmation the research community has that the DEA would follow the guidelines laid out in the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp at the federal level.

“It was a very significant announcement on the part of the DEA,” said Ziva D. Cooper, PhD, the director of research for the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Cannabis Research Initiative at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

“Until now, we hadn’t heard a word from the DEA about how they were going to approach this,” Cooper told Healthline. “Just because the Farm Bill came out, it didn’t mean the DEA was going to regulate hemp the same way as other CBDs.”

She added, “Now researchers are reassured that we can study specifically hemp-derived CBD without the regulatory obstacles required to study schedule I substances.”

Those obstacles included bureaucratic procedures and paperwork needed to get approvals.

The UCLA researchers are conducting multiple studies, including research on the effects of cannabinoids on infantile spasms and on pain, as well as how they might reduce our reliance on opioids and affect men and women differently.

They need a supply of cannabis to move forward with their research. Until now, all cannabis had been in the most restrictive Schedule I category.

Still, Cooper said this DEA announcement only covers one facet of their research.

“The field of CBD research is still super complicated at this point. Just because hemp-derived CBD is no longer scheduled, it doesn’t mean that other kinds of CBD are no longer scheduled” she said.

“CBD that is synthesized in the lab is still Schedule I. CBD derived from cannabis that is not hemp is still Schedule I” she explained.

“We still have to be very cautious about knowing where the CBD is coming from and having the facilities to store Schedule I CBD if our studies require that type of CBD.”

The DEA also announced it was expanding the number of approved growers supplying scientific and medical cannabis to researchers.

The DEA said the number of researchers had increased more than 40 percent over the past 2 years.

What it didn’t mention is that more than 30 applicants have been waiting for the agency to act. Right now, the only DEA-approved grower is a farm run by the University of Mississippi.

The announcement also didn’t mention that an Arizona researcher had taken the agency to court to compel it to follow its own directive.

Dr. Sue Sisley runs the Scottsdale Research Institute in Arizona and has been studying the use of cannabis to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In June, Sisley filed a complaint with the U.S. Court of Appeals.

In the court document, Sisley said the cannabis she got from the University of Mississippi farm for her research was “subpar.”

Nearly 3 years ago, she submitted an application to grow cannabis for research. That was after the DEA announced a new policy to increase the number of growers. But she said the agency has been dragging its feet.

On July 29, the Court ordered the DEA to respond in 30 days. The agency issued the new announcement about grower applications on August 26, just a couple of days before the court-mandated deadline.

Experts say even when the DEA starts to process those applications, researchers won’t get access to the additional quantity and variety of strains they need right away.

“This announcement is one very small step to make that a reality. It’s going to still be a while before there’s any other source for official research,” said Paul Seaborn, PhD, an assistant professor of commerce in the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia who has studied medical marijuana regulations extensively.

“They have to develop the regulations and get approvals, and make sure facilities are up to DEA standards,” Seaborn told Healthline.

“Even once you get through the bureaucracy, the product has to be grown and go through its life cycle. They don’t just pop up the next day.”

Cooper said researchers are struggling with the “urgent need to study the public health implications of increased availability, accessibility, and use of cannabis products across the U.S.”

“There is a massive gap in our understanding about how cannabis products can be helpful therapeutically” she said. “And we also don’t know the potential effects of this accumulated exposure over time.

“Physicians are at a loss on how to guide their patients. What dose should they take? What are the risks? How might it interact with other medications they’re on?” she added.

Seaborn said without adequate research “consumers are left to fend for themselves.”

He added, “If the research was able to go forth in a traditional way, everyone would be more informed instead of just having to rely on anecdotal testimony or taking a leap of faith that they trust the retailer and the producer of these products.”