Washington state cannabis licenseAdvocates for cannabis reform often point to favorable studies documenting the positive medicinal and wellness effects of marijuana to debunk federal law scheduling of cannabis as a substance on par with heroin. Opponents of cannabis reform invoke statistics that purport to show a relationship between cannabis and crime and violence. What both sides must agree upon, however, is the need for new, in-depth, and nuanced research of legal cannabis’ effect on society. At least if they belive in scientific research over anectdote.

Washington State is  moving in this direction with its cannabis research licenses. Here is what you need to know about these cannabis research licenses.

What is a Washington cannabis research license? Washington’s cannabis research license has been set up to facilitate further study of cannabis’ scientific, medical, and industrial properties and applications. According to Washington statute RCW 69.50.372, marijuana research license holders  may “produce, process, and possess marijuana for … limited research purposes.” The law restricts the scope of permitted research to the generously broad categories of: tests of chemical potency and composition; clinical investigation of cannabis-derived drugs; tests regarding the efficacy and safety of cannabis as a medical treatment; and genomic or agricultural research.

Along with a whole host of other factors, these new cannabis research licenses will help solidify Washington state – more specifically the Seattle area – as a hotbed for cannabis research. Existing Seattle cannabis and biotech and technology firms (almost all of which are quite open to cannabis), along with the city’s vibrant vibrant start-up scene should combine to accelerate worthy cannabis research for a wide range of applications.

What is the latest regarding Washington cannabis research licenses? The Washington state legislature passed a law authorizing licenses for researching cannabis’ medical properties, chemical composition, and agricultural potential last year. Following a rule making period, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board has indicated it will begin accepting applications March 1, 2017. However, absent swift action by the Washington state legislature, this date will probably get pushed back by a requirement in the research licensure law discussed below.

Why might there be a delay in implementing cannabis research in Washington? The law that created cannabis research licenses also mandates that applicants and their research projects be vetted and approved by third-party scientific reviewers. The reviewers are required to audit the research and its reports. This is a an understandable precaution given the state law’s conflict with federal law (which still pretty much makes cannabis illegal for any purpose), and a fair method for ensuring the licenses are being used for their intended purpose.

The problem is that Washington State has not yet approved any third-party scientific reviewers, and no such approvals appear to be forthcoming. Many expected Life Sciences Discovery Fund to serve as a scientific reviewer, but for what appears to be funding reasons, it has not stepped up. Nor unfortunately, have either the University of Washington or Washington State University or any of the other institutions of higher learning in the state. Until a third-party scientific reviewer is approved, applicants will be in limbo.

The new cannabis research law also requires the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board select a scientific reviewer to review the research project and determine the merit of its quality, design, and impact; the adequacy of its personnel, expertise, and other functional capacity; and whether the quantity of marijuana cultivated matches the needs of these objectives. No scientific reviewer, no cannabis research.

Why is this important? Lack of legal and high level cannabis research is a classic “chicken and egg” problem for cannabis legalization. Cannabis is illegal in large part because the powers that be claim it to have no legally recognized medicinal or therapeutic value. And yet — surprise, surprise, efforts to conduct high level research that might show the contrary gets suppressed by a lack of legal access to cannabis and by a reluctance by many to fund research that could be shut down as illegal. Something will have to give in order to overcome this impasse, and it is not sure when or how that might happen.

As cannabis lawyers, we find all of this extremely frustrating, as it not only means that those needing cannabis for medical reasons are cheated out of their medicine in states where cannabis is not legal even for medical treatments, but it also means that in cannabis legal states like Washington, far too many patients do not not get the ideal strain and quantities and ingestion method for their particular conditions because there is no high level research on these things. It also means that countries like Israel and Canada will continue to surpass the United States in cannabis research and technology.

Bottom Line: Do not expect your Washington State cannabis research license soon. And that is too bad.