In 2007, Dr. Kent Hutchison began work on a study looking at how marijuana use impacted cognition and emotion in humans. His lab was at the University of Colorado, Boulder, nestled in a city known for its plethora of stoners. So when it came time to find a variety of locals willing to come smoke pot in his lab, Dr. Hutchison had no shortage of willing participants.
Yet, while there was weed, weed everywhere, there wasn’t a nug to smoke. At least, nothing other than low-quality pot from Mississippi, which had been freeze dried for years or months, then rehydrated before being smoked.
“We had them smoke it in the lab, then studied their mood and cognition,” recalls Dr. Hutchison, sitting in that same lab nearly a decade later. “And what they told me was ‘that was disgusting, what are you giving me? I would never, ever smoke that stuff.’”
Due to their distaste for the government-approved marijuana, Dr. Hutchison says he didn’t feel comfortable moving forward with the study.
“That’s going to bias your research,” he says of the poor tasting weed, “you’re not going to be studying people who are having a pleasant experience, like they do when they go home and smoke their medical- grade marijuana. So the research loses its validity because it doesn’t reflect what is happening in the real world.”
Federal Cannabis Dictates Scientific Studies
In 2016, marijuana is now more legal than ever in Colorado, with around 600 dispensaries statewide. Yet federal laws prohibit their scientists (or scientists from anywhere else in the US, including the 22 other states with some form of legal marijuana) from conducting research using anything other than the government-grown ganja.
This dilemma has lead to frustration among scientists looking to study how people currently use cannabis.
“I’m really worried about our ability to recruit veterans when they see what we’re using,” says Dr. Sue Sisley, who recently launched the first study of cannabis as a treatment for PTSD. “Right now they already have access to quality cannabis, whether it’s through dispensaries or the black market.”
Any university scientists wanting to study marijuana must go through a rigorous application and inspection process involving the Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Institute of Health, and the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). It’s the NIDA who oversee the production of marijuana, and the DEA who issues licenses to cultivate it. To date, the DEA have only issued one license, to the University of Mississippi, a region of the country far removed from any form of marijuana legalization.
The process is very complicated and time consuming, and there’s no guarantee that your study will be approved.
“It’s hugely ironic that you go to all this trouble to get marijuana from the government, but there’s 18 dispensaries right here in Boulder,” says Dr. Hutchison, who regularly buys beer from a liquor store when conducting alcohol studies. “The DEA goes to great lengths to make sure you’re keeping it locked up and highly secure, so it doesn’t get diverted for public consumption, but everyone here would rather buy it at a dispensary.”
Dr. Sisley says that for her study, she requested cannabis with a 1:1 ratio of THC to CBD, both at 12 percent. She was told that they didn’t have that on hand and would have to grow a new batch. After several attempts over a 20 month period, the best they could do was seven percent; and if that wasn’t sufficient, she could wait for another grow cycle.
“If you’re trying to do a real world study to imitate what veterans are using day to day, this doesn’t come close,” says Dr. Sisley.
NIDA’s Sub-Par Supply
The NIDA declined our request for an interview, but emailed along statements in response to our questions.
In the statement, the NIDA say that they are happy with the marijuana provided by the University of Mississippi. When asked how their cannabis stands up to what people are smoking in Colorado or Washington, we were told that the University of Mississippi studies marijuana obtained from the DEA on the black market, then attempts to mirror its potency and other characteristics.
The marijuana can be purchased in bulk form for $2,497 per kilo, or $10.96 for each “marijuana cigarette.” They do not currently provide concentrates or edibles to scientists, which are incredibly popular items in the legal the marijuana industry. (They do provide cannabis oil, which can be used to make edibles, if a lab is knowledgeable about how to do that.)
Dr. Hutchison believes this is not only a disservice to the study of how marijuana affects humans, but also prevents university scientists from being a watchdog for the legal industry.
“There are a wide range of products out there, and you would think that in Colorado you would want your best university scientists studying it for contaminants, potency, studying its effect on animals, but no scientist who works for a university can do any of that.”
Colorado does have a Marijuana Enforcement Division that tests dispensary goods, but Dr. Hutchison believes it’s unlikely they have the caliber of equipment or chemists that a university would.
If a privately funded science lab wanted to conduct research on marijuana in a legalized state, they could do so. But somewhere like the University of Colorado, Boulder, hasve $400 million in federal grants at stake, and, like the banking industry, do not feel that they’ve been given enough of a green light from Washington to break federal marijuana laws without suffering the consequences.
Though the NIDA has plenty of cannabis available for them, if anyone is interested.
According to their statement, only eight researchers received marijuana from the NIDA in 2015. Whether this is due to a lack of interest in studying marijuana or too few applications being approved is unclear. Though the small demand means that the University of Mississippi hasn’t had to grow any new marijuana since 2014, which is why it is necessary for them to freeze the marijuana before putting it into storage.
Researchers at an Impasse
Dr. Sisley says that it was frustrating having to purchase a freezer to store the cannabis, but she’s more concerned about the lack of sophisticated information about the pot itself. Her study on PTSD and cannabis is completely unprecedented, so even the smallest botanical detail could have profound implications.
“They refused to turn over to me the drug master-file to us,” she says, “which tells you all of the details about the quality of the study drug: What conditions was it grown under? Were pesticides used? All they tell us is the CBD to THC ratio;, I don’t know anything about the terpene profile, the flavonoids, or any of the other cannabinoids. We all know that the plant is far more complex than just THC and CBD.”
When asked about this, the NIDA said that any and all relevant information regarding the analyses conducted is included with each marijuana shipment to researchers. They added that no pesticides are used in their cannabis.
Dr. Hutchison says that he’s found ways to work around the restrictions on marijuana research. While he’s not allowed to let subjects use unapproved marijuana on university property, he can go to them, asking which products they use, how much they consume and for what (if any) ailments, and drawing blood to test for a variety of factors.
“But that’s not as good as doing it in the lab,” he says “where we can measure the dose, and know exactly what’s in the marijuana.”
All of this could have been alleviated, says Hutchison, if the 2013 memo from the US Attorney General, which outlined how the federal government would and would not prosecute states with legalized marijuana, had included some kind of green light to universities to conduct tests with dispensary cannabis.
“If they had said something in that memo that encouraged research and they wouldn’t prosecute scientists or take a universities’ federal money away, that would have been enough to allow the university to feel comfortable. But they didn’t do that.”
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