SALT LAKE CITY — Saying it's high time to address medical marijuana research, Sen. Orrin Hatch introduced bipartisan legislation Wednesday to better study cannabis as a safe and effective treatment.
"Our country has experimented with a variety of state solutions without properly delving into the weeds on the effectiveness, safety, dosing, administration and quality of medical marijuana," the Utah Republican said. "All the while, the federal government strains to enforce regulations that sometimes do more harm than good."
In a speech on the Senate floor, Hatch made it clear that he strongly opposes recreational marijuana use and that he believes it leads to broader drug use.
But he said evidence shows that cannabis has medicinal properties that can change people's lives and is sometimes the only hope for chronic medical conditions. He said he's concluded after "careful, deliberative thought" that medicinal marijuana could be an alternative to addictive opioids.
Patients and doctors are all interested in more research, and clearing regulatory roadblocks is a great step forward, said Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, a Utah group advocating for legalizing medical marijuana.
"But patients can’t wait years for the science to catch up. There is urgent need for decriminalizing this alternative treatment so sick Utahns can get relief while research moves forward," he said.
The Marijuana Effective Drug Study Act would make marijuana more available for legitimate research and streamline the onerous research registration process. It would require the National Institute on Drug Abuse to develop recommendations for good manufacturing practices for growing marijuana for research.
The proposal would also allow for the commercial production of drugs developed from marijuana once the Food and Drug Administration approves them.
The measure would not change the federal designation of marijuana as a Schedule I drug, narcotics the government deems have no medical use and a high possibility for addiction.
Two Florida congressmen, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz and Democratic Rep. Darren Soto, introduced legislation in April that would make cannabis a Schedule III drug. Reclassifying marijuana could pave the way for more research and make it easier for sick people to obtain the drug, they say.
The Utah Legislature approved a bill this year that allows marijuana research in the state without federal approval. Medical marijuana advocates launched a ballot initiative in June to let voters decide whether to legalize the drug for medicinal use.
Hatch said the science to support the use of a product such as cannabis oils is lacking, not because researchers are unwilling but because of bureaucratic red tape and over-regulation.
Marijuana researchers must go through a complex application process involving several federal agencies that can take a year or more to complete, he said.
"And the longer researchers have to wait, the longer patients have to suffer," Hatch added.
Hatch said he hopes the initiative could be a "kumbaya moment" for sharply divided Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, Chris Coons, D-Del., Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., joined Hatch in sponsoring the bill.