Rep. Andy Harris, foe of legalized marijuana, leads push for research

Rep. Andy Harris, foe of legalized marijuana, leads push for research

Two years after Rep. Andy Harris put himself in the center of a controversy over legalizing marijuana in the nation's capital, the conservative Republican is emerging as a leading voice advocating for more research into the drug's medicinal value.

Harris, a Johns Hopkins-trained anesthesiologist who hangs a white lab coat in his waiting room on Capitol Hill, has been working for roughly a year to build a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers who want to ease restrictions on marijuana for the purpose of studying its effect on debilitating diseases.

Harris and other lawmakers intend to introduce legislation this week to create a less cumbersome process for marijuana researchers seeking Department of Justice approval to work with the drug.

Among other changes, the measure would require federal regulators to approve or deny research applications within two months.

Marijuana remains a thorny political issue for Harris and other Republicans, even as Maryland and 24 other states have approved the use of pot to treat chronic pain, epilepsy and other conditions. Several Republicans in the party's pro-legalization libertarian wing cited Harris' stance on the drug as a reason they decided to challenge him in the April primary.

"Part of my frustration in the entire debate around legalizing medical marijuana is that there really isn't good scientific evidence about what it's good for and what it's not good for," Harris, who still practices medicine, told The Baltimore Sun. "We really don't have good data supporting widespread use."

That position is uncontroversial — even some proponents of looser marijuana laws have lamented a lack of peer-reviewed research. The American Medical Association calls for "further adequate and well-controlled studies" in the opening lines of its formal policy on medical marijuana.

There is anecdotal evidence that the drug has helped patients who are suffering from seizures, Parkinson's and other complex conditions. But Harris and others say states are making decisions about which types of disease can be treated with marijuana without a clear sense of the drug's efficacy.

In that sense, both supporters of expanding the use of medical marijuana and opponents can find reasons to back the legislation. Both sides agree that one of the reasons there is so little data is because it's been difficult for researchers to get their hands on the drug.

The Drug Enforcement Administration is considering moving marijuana to a less regulated category of drug, a change that would also make it easier for researchers to work with. A decision is expected this summer.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, is supporting the legislation.

"Despite the fact that over 200 million Americans now have legal access to some form of medical marijuana, federal policy is blocking science," he said. "It's outrageous."

Still, Harris' history on the drug makes him a complicated messenger. The Baltimore County lawmaker drew national attention — and the ire of leaders in the District of Columbia — for attaching language to a spending bill in 2014 to block the decriminalization of marijuana in Washington.

Then-Mayor Vincent Gray reacted angrily to the proposal, and advocates called for a boycott of the Eastern Shore beaches Harris represents.

In the end, beaches stayed busy, small amounts of recreational pot remained legal in Washington and Harris won his primary in April with more than 78 percent of the vote.

Harris has engaged more forcefully on medical issues in recent years, such as with an effort to expand funding for young scientists. An obstetric anesthesiologist, Harris is on leave from Johns Hopkins Hospital. He still sees a small number of patients at Memorial Hospital in Easton to maintain his board certification.

While the broader politics on marijuana have shifted, Harris says he hasn't changed his position. Asked if he believes, as a physician, that marijuana has medical benefit for some patients, he says that's the question the legislation intends to answer.

"I personally think it is the drug of choice in very, very few situations," Harris said. "Can it be useful in some situations? Probably. We haven't really defined those very clearly."

The bill would require the National Institute on Drug Abuse to continue to produce and supply marijuana for research, and to expand the current supply to include seeds and immature plants.

That provision could prove controversial, because some research advocates say the agency is slow to respond to orders; they have sought to allow independent growers to supply pot to laboratories.

The measure also would require the Justice Department to approve research applications as long as certain conditions are met.

Harris, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, offered an amendment to legislation last year that would have made similar changes to the way the drug is regulated.

His proposal, supported by many of the same lawmakers backing this current effort, was blocked from reaching the floor by the House Rules Committee.

Other lawmakers supporting the measure include Republican Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia and Democratic Rep. Sam Farr of California. A companion bill will be introduced in the Senate by Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Chris Coons of Delaware.

"There are countless reports of marijuana's medicinal benefits, but patients, doctors, pharmacists, and policymakers must have more to rely on than anecdotal evidence," Griffith said in a statement. "Removing the barriers that prevent further research on marijuana's medicinal benefits and possible side effects is the right thing to do."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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