Inside Bipartisan Push for Legal Weed Research

Pro-pot, anti-pot and even pot-indifferent politicians are coming together to demand real cannabis research

A new bill would make real marijuana research possible – but can it pass? Credit: AP/REX/Shutterstock

Forget Vegas – when it comes to federal marijuana policy, the real gamblers just went all-in at the Capitol. These suit-donning winners won't walk away with the keys to someone's moped, car or house. This winner-take-all match could change the trajectory of U.S. marijuana policy in the coming decades and will, theoretically, be decided by science.

Both sides of this debate say they're all-in on testing weed. Just last year Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) – commonly referred to as marijuana's biggest foe in Washington – told Rolling Stone why he supports efforts to expand research on weed, "As a physician, I believe it's going to show it's really not helpful in a whole lot of diseases."

His pot-embracing counterparts say, Game. On.

See, marijuana may be the worst thing you ever put in your body. It may also be the best thing to treat your ailments or even to help you relax more than any happy hour ever could. The shame is, currently federal law prohibits either side of that debate from having pristine, multi-layered, peer-reviewed science on their side.

To truly confirm the winner, Congress first has to pass the newly introduced Medical Cannabis Research Act of 2018. Taken at face value, it's a seemingly simple piece of legislation that calls for broadening research on weed – but it also marks a significant stride for pot policy on Capitol Hill because the bill is bringing anti-, pro- and even agnostic-marijuana lawmakers together.

"This is the cannabis reform legislation that has the greatest chance to pass this Congress," Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) told reporters as he unveiled the bill at the Capitol Thursday.

The last time the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on reforming marijuana laws was 1978 – but now it's the panel's ultra-conservative, 65-year-old chair, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, who is cosponsoring the bill. Goodlatte's promised to bring the legislation before his committee this year, according to Gaetz, who says the Chair's support is vital and could help pro-pot lawmakers get the nation out of its current cannabis Catch 22.

"We can't change the law without having demonstrated research, but often times we cannot perform research without changing the law," Gaetz laments. "Our bill ends this logjam by opening access to cannabis research and pursuing potential cures wherever we may find them."

It's not just a logjam. It's needless confusion, rightful timidity and misunderstandings at the federal and state level nationwide. Exhibit One: while it's currently legal for doctors at the Department of Veteran's Affairs to give their patients information on federally sponsored marijuana clinical trials, many VA doctors wrongly believe it's illegal. That confusion even extends into the nine states and the District of Columbia where recreational weed is legal. The bipartisan legislation seeks to end the confusion and explicitly allows those doctors to help veterans become a part of those test groups.

"Our veterans deserve to be able to be treated with the type of healthcare treatment that they think and their physicians think that would help either relieve their pain or relieve their disease or provide for the quality of life that they so deserve," Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) said as they unveiled the bill.

Even as the vast majority of states have rushed to embrace marijuana in one form or another, this Republican-controlled Congress has been marked by a fear of even debating pot policy. A number of Republicans are growing increasingly more vocal in their disappointment on the federal stagnation on the issue.

"For so long, really, federal policies have been such a major disappointment on this issue, and it's all driven by social stigma and political cowardice. And we need to learn the truth about cannabis," Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) tells Rolling Stone.

"It's about time the federal government stop ignoring this issue and allow an honest and sincere and transparent process to do research, to learn more," Curbelo says. "Hopefully whatever the outcome of all this research is will inform federal legislators on how best to regulate the substance from a federal perspective, because right now we just pretend it doesn't exist."

Currently only the University of Mississippi is allowed to grow and supply the marijuana that's tested by federally funded researchers nationwide, but their crop is reportedly sub-par. This bill would grant more of those permits, meaning researchers would have more choices for federally approved grass. Many of the bill's supporters argue marijuana's time has come, while the "Just say No" mantra bellowed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others is basically dead, if not idiotic.

"I think it's just a puritanistic, Victorian way of looking at the world," Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) tells Rolling Stone.

Correa is particularly offended that Sessions famously said, "Good people don't smoke pot."

"Well, sir, there's people with cancer that have benefitted from cannabis," Correa say, his voice rising. "There are kids with epilepsy, with seizures, who have also benefitted tremendously form cannabis and I guarantee those kids, 10-years-old, are good kids."

That's why many of the bill's diverse array of cosponsors say this effort is so meaningful. And they're ready to roll the dice and bet big that this effort will help them combat the stigma hovering like a black cloud over the current federal, prohibitionist marijuana policy.

"I think the issue isn't the research," Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL) tells Rolling Stone. "I think it's the taboo, and that's what I think hopefully more official research can change minds around here. Because Congress is totally out of step with the well-known knowledge of the vast majority of Americans that marijuana has medical properties."