The Federal Government Is Now Growing 30x More Marijuana for Research - Here's How They Got Their Arms Twisted into Doing It

The federal government is drastically increasing the amount of cannabis it can grow for research purposes on an annual basis, from 46 pounds to 1,433 pounds. This surprising 30-fold increase comes at the request of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which oversees all federally sanctioned research on illicit drugs. This is welcome, though needlessly delayed, news especially for sufferers of epilepsy, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other conditions that have shown to improve with cannabis use. These conditions can expect to see increased attention from researchers.

A major impetus behind NIDA’s sudden cultivation of an additional 1,387 pounds of pot is the spate of cannabidiol (CBD)-only medical marijuana bills that have recently become law, mainly in conservative states. Most of these bills also call for medical cannabis research. NIDA is supposed to provide a supply of cannabis (all out of the University of Mississippi) for Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved research, so it has likely increased its supply in part to fulfill requests from a handful of CBD-only states.

CBD is one of more than 60 medicinal compounds, or “cannabinoids” in cannabis, and it gained fame when CNN’s staff MD Sanjay Gupta reported on how it stopped seizures in an epileptic 6-year-old named Charlotte Figi. Many CBD-only bills have sprung up under the title of “Charlotte’s Web,” in reference to the girl. CBD-only bills allow for patients with seizure disorders and some other maladies, depending on the state, to possess cannabis that is high in CBD, but low in THC (the cannabinoid behind the plant’s euphoric effects). This makes them unnecessarily restrictive, ostracizing many patients with illnesses that would benefit from a combination of different cannabinoids.

NIDA’s Historic Research Blockade

In addition to CBD-only states, 23 U.S. states (and Washington D.C.) have laws allowing for whole-plant cannabis to treat a host of ailments, ranging from PTSD to chronic pain, glaucoma and the brutal side effects of chemotherapy. The hope amongst patients, researchers and legalization advocates in those states is that NIDA’s cultivation increase will supply cannabis to needed studies to researchers in these areas as well. However, NIDA is far from a supplier that fills orders. It is a government organization with its own priorities and prejudices, and has historically prevented any research on cannabis’ potential benefits. A full understanding of why it is dramatically increasing the government’s cannabis supply requires more context.

The federal government treats cannabis differently from any other drug. Any FDA-approved research on marijuana has to go through a review process unique to pot, and only NIDA is legally authorized to grow weed for those studies. That last point is key, because it means that NIDA can bottleneck all legal research, more or less at will. Private companies are prohibited from supplying cannabis for government-sanctioned research purposes, even though they can, and do, for research on MDMA, LSD, psilocybin, and other Schedule I drugs.

FDA-approved research on marijuana’s medicinal effects has come at a trickle, not because of a lack of interest or money, but because the federal government has stifled these inquiries at a few key choke points.

Eliminating NIDA’s monopoly on marijuana distribution “is the key factor that would liberate medical marijuana research,” asserts Rick Doblin, Executive Director of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).  MAPS sponsors most existing government-approved research into the medicinal potentials of Schedule I psychedelics, and they’ve been attempting to get a cannabis efficacy study off the ground for decades. They already have FDA approval for that study, which would look at cannabis’ ability to treat PTSD in combat veterans, but still haven’t receive the necessary government pot to begin their research—even after years of petitioning NIDA and the DEA. Both organizations have continually stalled and come up with excuses not to provide the supply, so the study has yet to get off the ground.

Doblin said NIDA has has allocated some marijuana plants that it is growing for their study, "but doesn't have any marijuana to give us now.  We may need to wait until about January 2015 to receive NIDA marijuana for the study."

“One of our goals is to understand the contributions of THC and CBD, both alone and in combination,” he said. “We couldn't do that study without NIDA marijuana.”

Pressure Is Building

In June, a bipartisan group of 30 members of the House of Representatives signed a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). They asked them to eliminate marijuana research’s unique review process, and remove a roadblock to legitimate scientific inquiry on how the plant can be used as a healing agent.

“Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing for the use of medical marijuana,” the Representatives wrote.  “Over one million Americans currently use medical marijuana at the recommendation of their physician. We believe the widespread use of medical marijuana should necessitate research into what specific relief it offers.”

The letter finishes with a request to treat marijuana the same as other illegal drugs:

“We request that you review and revise the HHS Guidance to eliminate what we believe to be an unnecessary additional review process. NIDA should provide marijuana at-cost to all non-NIH funded marijuana research protocols that have successfully obtained necessary FDA, DEA, IRB and appropriate state and local authority appeal.”

HHS has yet to respond. This is possibly because they, like NIDA, cling to an untenable position that marijuana is dangerous and requires more oversight than any other illicit drug—a position that has been debunked again and again.

“I believe that having the FDA evaluate data about safety and efficacy is an appropriate way to go in our society,” said Doblin. “Because that has been blocked for so long [for marijuana], I feel it's been appropriate for states to go ahead and make it legal, even without the research. But as a society, we want to liberate FDA-approved research. You would think after 23 medical marijuana states, they would say, ‘Okay.’”

Keeping Control of Research Plants

Despite the federal government’s foot-dragging, some research on cannabis (either looking for negative impacts, or independent and lacking US government approval) does happen. Research will potentially increase now that NIDA has loosened the spigot, however their motivation for doing so may be based more on the desire to maintain their status of the sole-provider of cannabis for government-approved research than any actual desire to support additional studies.

While NIDA can brush off requests from small non-profits like MAPS, the equation changes when states start asking for an increased supply. By increasing the amount of marijuana available for research, NIDA can make the case that additional suppliers are not needed.

That still doesn’t mean that having a de facto bottleneck for cannabis research makes a lot of sense.

“The monopoly is not cost cutting or economical,” says Doblin. “[If we eliminated NIDA’s monopoly on cannabis distribution for research] there would be an enormous amount of research, not costing the government a penny.”

The only reasonable conclusion is that key government organizations, namely the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), FDA and NIDA, actively want to slow down research on medical marijuana. This intransigence, while frustrating, has effectively encouraged almost half of all US states to ignore the normal drug review processes and allow doctors to recommend cannabis to their patients.

“NIDA obstruction is actually helping to facilitate exactly what they don't want, which is the increase of medical marijuana at the state level,” said Doblin.

NIDA’s decision to increase the amount of cannabis grown by the U.S. government by over 30 times is, in some ways, a grudging acknowledgement that a movement that started with voters has worked its way into state-level politics, and is starting to exert pressure on the federal government. While this is encouraging, the Obama Administration ought to eliminate the excess restrictions on marijuana research (which it has the power to do), and allow a curious population to explore cannabis’ powerful medicinal effects.

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