A “Secret Law” Prepared Under Trump Administration Blocked US Cannabis Research

Lawmakers like Joe Biden have lamented not enough marijuana research exists to end federal prohibition, but scientists have just as often lamented tight regulations from the federal government inhibits legitimate research from occurring.

Since 1968, scientists pursuing marijuana research have had to obtain their cannabis from a 12-acre farm located at the University of Mississippi. The Obama Administration signed legislation late in 2016 that would expand the number of facilities growing marijuana for research, but the Drug Enforcement Agency hasn’t granted any licenses four years later.

Thanks to a lawsuit spearheaded by the Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) and cannabis researcher Sue Sisley, the public now understands why. A 2018 secret memo, released as part of the lawsuit settled, reveals the Trump Administration believes the nearly 50-year-old program in Mississippi has always been illegal. In fact, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) suggest the restrictions around marijuana research aren’t harsh enough.

The US Department of Justice — whose Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) wrote the memo in 2018 — published the document on its website.

“We conclude that DEA must change its current practices and the policy it announced in 2016 to comply with the Single Convention,” reads the memo. “DEA must adopt a framework in which it purchases and takes possession of the entire marijuana crop of each licensee after the crop is harvested. In addition, DEA must generally monopolize the import, export, wholesale trade, and stock maintenance of lawfully grown marijuana.”

That the DEA wasn’t granting marijuana licenses for research purposes first came to light back in 2018. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions had first obstructed this process—an atypical act, as previous attorney general never involved themselves in the research program. Lawmakers like Sens. Orrin Hatch and Kamala Harris sent a letter to the DOJ and Sessions, known to be a longtime anti-cannabis crusader, instructing them to stop blocking marijuana research. This secret memo now clarifies the DEA’s holdup in granting marijuana licenses.

Basically, the memo offers an interpretation of the UN Single Convention treaties and how those agreements relate to legally growing weed in the US. And since it’s an interpretation of the law from the OLC, it’s essentially a law in and of itself.


The Single Convention treaties required every UN member nation to outlaw certain drugs, marijuana included. And the treaties do, in fact, state that only one government agency, in any given country, can oversee cannabis cultivation for research or medical purposes. That agency must also maintain ownership over the plants, and it must directly oversee distribution of plant material, too. The only exception is if the government agency assigns trusted third-parties to handle cultivation, processing, storage, and transport of the weed, which is precisely what Obama’s grower’s program was supposed to do.

“Boiled down, the fact that a secret re-interpretation of an international treaty from 1961 has blocked the advancement of marijuana science in this country for the past three years is absurd,” the Scottsdale Research Institute said in a statement. “Allowing American scientists to cultivate or acquire marijuana grown in this country under strict DEA regulation and supervision is pro-science, pro-veteran, and pro-law enforcement. It puts America First and promotes public health and safety.”

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