The Obama administration is planning to remove a major roadblock to marijuana research, officials said Wednesday, potentially spurring broad scientific study of a drug that is being used to treat dozens of diseases in states across the nation despite little rigorous evidence of its effectiveness.
The new policy is expected to sharply increase the supply of marijuana available to researchers.
And in taking this step, the Obama administration is further relaxing the nation’s stance on marijuana. President Obama has said he views it as no more dangerous than alcohol, and the Justice Department has not stood in the way of states that have legalized the drug.
While 25 states have approved the medical use of marijuana for a growing list of conditions, including Parkinson’s, Crohn’s disease, Tourette’s syndrome, Alzheimer’s, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, the research to back up many of those treatments is thin. The new policy could begin to change that.
The new policy will be published as soon as Thursday in the federal register, according to the three officials, who have seen the policy but spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it.
It is unclear how many additional universities would receive licenses to grow marijuana, but the new policy does not set a cap on the number who could qualify. Any institution that has an approved research protocol and the security measures needed to store dangerous drugs can apply.
But drug policy advocates, experts and researchers predicted that increasing the number of institutions growing marijuana will have a significant practical effect. The University of Mississippi’s monopoly on that role has been a barrier.
“It’s clear that this was a significant hurdle in limiting the quantity of clinical research taking place in the U.S.,” said Paul Armentano, the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
As recently as June, Dr. Steven W. Gust, a special assistant to the director of National Institute on Drug Abuse, had disagreed with critics who say the monopoly has stifled research. “In the past, NIDA has been able to provide marijuana for every federally qualified research project,” he said recently in an emailed response to questions.
Dr. Orrin Devinsky of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at New York University Langone Medical Center called it “deeply disappointing” that the agency had not done so. He said the scientific data overwhelmingly indicated it should not be listed as such a dangerous drug.
Others were relieved that the D.E.A. had moved to allow more institutions to grow marijuana for research, but not taken it off the list of the most dangerous drugs.
“They’re looking at the science, taking a nuanced view,” said Kevin A. Sabet, a former Obama administration drug-policy adviser and president of the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “It’s a good day for science.”