Research Marijuana to Become Accessible to Scientists, But It Could Take Years

While medical marijuana has become a household item in over half the nation, there is still too little research being conducted on the cannabis plant in the US to truly get a grip on its medicinal benefits. However, the US Drug Enforcement Administration recently made some adjustments to its policy on the cultivation of research-grade marijuana that some policy experts say will provide a wealth of new opportunities to explore the powers of pot.

During a recent segment on PRI’s Science Friday, John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told host Ira Flatow that the DEA’s willingness to issue more cannabis cultivation contracts would allow the scientific community to get serious about the scope of medical marijuana research.

“Right now, the monopoly is bad news,” Hudak said of the federal government’s decades-long affiliation with the University of Mississippi. “If you talk to researchers who do clinical experimentation with marijuana, looking for medical efficacy, they’ll tell you that the monopoly creates roadblocks in terms of access, in terms of the speed with which they can get the product, and with the types of strains or potency or compositions of marijuana that they want to use in their research.”

Ultimately, Hudak believes that by creating competition among U.S. sanctioned growers, researchers around the country will gain easier access to the strains and potency of pot required to conduct research into how marijuana can relieve the symptoms of and/or cure a variety of health conditions.

“The medical marijuana that you would get from a dispensary in Colorado or in any of the states that have medical marijuana programs can have very low potency or a composition that has no psychoactive ingredients, all the way up to very high-potency marijuana,” Hudak explained. “A lot of researchers want their research to reflect what’s going on in America, and there’s real limitations on that because of the supply from Ole Miss.”

But while the DEA has officially opened up the application process for universities and businesses interested in cultivating marijuana for Uncle Sam, some reports indicate that creating a competitive atmosphere might not be easy.

Last week, STAT News reported that several major universities, including some that already operate industrial hemp programs, either have no interest or no plans to cultivate marijuana for the government. Much of the apprehensiveness, however, seems to be rooted in a lack of understanding in what is expected by the DEA, rather than complete disinterest.

A document published last year by the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates that before the University of Mississippi could claim its $69 million government cultivation contract, it first needed a “secure and video monitored outdoor facility of approximately 12 acres” and an indoor facility of at least 1000 square feet, “having controls for light intensity, photo cycles, temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide concentration.”

For a school not already equipped with these facilities, the initial investment could be a deterrent.

Furthermore, the private sector is not likely to have much luck joining the ranks of governmental pot growers—many businesses have disqualified themselves by already engaging in cultivation. A recent memo signed by acting DEA administrator Chuck Rosenberg said that anyone who has violated the Controlled Substances Act by growing marijuana in a legal state might not make the cut.

This “includes any activity in violation of the CSA (regardless of whether such activity is permissible under State law) as well as activity in violation of State or local law,” the memo reads.

So it stands to reason that there could be a wealth of confusion and red tape to cut through before the DEA’s plan to allow more medical marijuana research will take effect.

Unfortunately, even after the drug agency enacts its revised policy—a process that could take years—progress will almost certainly be minute unless the project has the backing of the federal government. That’s because, despite how much marijuana is produced in the US, Uncle Sam still dictates which studies should be recognized and considered credible.

“There [are] still, at the end of the day, very few things that carry the gold standard of a federally approved medical research project,” Hudak said.


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