DEA to expand marijuana research after years of delay

FILE PHOTO: Marijuana plants are displayed for sale at Canna Pi medical marijuana dispensary in Seattle

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said on Monday that it will move ahead with a long-delayed expansion of its marijuana research program, in a sign that the Trump administration's hostility to the drug may be waning as a growing number of states have legalized its use.

The DEA said it would roll out new guidelines that would allow more growers to produce marijuana for scientific and medical research.

That could eventually lead to "safe and effective drug products that may be approved for marketing by the Food and Drug Administration," the agency said in a regulatory filing.

The DEA also said producers of hemp, an industrial form of marijuana that has little psychoactive effect, will not have to get a permit from the agency.

The announcement comes more than three years after the DEA first said in August 2016 that it would expand the number of licensed growers.

Only one producer at the University of Mississippi is currently licensed to produce marijuana. Researchers complain that the monopoly has limited the types of cannabis available for study, restricting their ability to learn about the more than 100 chemical compounds in the drug.

The DEA has yet to take action on the 33 applications it has received since then, as the Trump administration has threatened a crackdown on a drug that is now legal for recreational or medical use in 33 states and the District of Columbia.

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, creating legal uncertainty and freezing many businesses out of the banking system.

Then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions told federal prosecutors in January 2018 that they could go after marijuana users and producers in states that had legalized the drug, reversing the hands-off position taken by the Obama administration.

The threat of prosecution has not slowed action at the state level, as eight states have approved marijuana for medical or recreational use since then.

The legal market is expected to reach $12.4 billion in the United States this year and nearly double in size by 2025, according to New Frontier Data.

The DEA says 542 people are now registered to conduct research on the drug, up 40 percent from January 2017, and the production quota has more than doubled over that period.

A wider variety of growers will give those researchers more opportunity, DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon said.

"We believe registering more growers will result in researchers having access to a wider variety for study," Dhillon said in a statement.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Marguerita Choy and Jonathan Oatis)