The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has announced that it is close to granting a number of companies permission to produce cannabis for research purposes. Previously, only the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) had been authorised to supply weed for research, yet the extremely poor quality of the plants grown by the institute has led many scientists to question the validity of studies conducted using federal cannabis.
Low Quality Cannabis Hinders Research
Back in 1968, the DEA gave its approval for a 12-acre farm run by NIDA at the University of Mississippi to grow and supply cannabis for research projects in the US. More than half a century later, the number of other cultivators that have received permission to produce research-grade bud stands at precisely zilch. In other words, NIDA has maintained a complete monopoly on all research cannabis in the US. Such a state of affairs is clearly not conducive to the scientific exploration of cannabis, given that the plants produced by a single facility can’t possibly replicate the huge variety of cultivars that are used in the real world.
This issue is made immediately obvious by the fact that the weed supplied by NIDA has a maximum THC content of just 13 percent, whereas many recreational and cannabis users often rely on cultivars containing up to 20 percent THC or more. To make matters even worse, most of the cannabis produced at the Mississippi farm has actually been found to contain much lower yields of key cannabinoids than the label claims.
In a study that was published in the journal Scientific Reports in 2016, researchers found that the average amount of THC in NIDA’s weed was just 5.15 percent, while average CBD concentrations were 6.16 percent[i]. Such cannabis is clearly much weaker than the stuff people tend to use at home, leading the study authors to question if there’s any point conducting research on this sub-par material.
Then came an even bigger bombshell in 2017, when researchers working on the first ever clinical trial into the efficacy of cannabis to treat PTSD released an image of the research materials they received from NIDA. Even to the naked eye, it was clear that the cannabis supplied was not of a high standard, yet when the researchers conducted their own analyses, they found high levels of mould and yeast and just eight percent THC.
In an interview with PBS, researcher Sue Sisley claimed that the stuff she received “didn’t resemble cannabis. It didn’t smell like cannabis,” and that “if you’re trying to do a study where you imitate what patients do in the real world, you can’t [using this weed].”
A New Era For Cannabis Research?
In a statement released last week, the DEA announced that it was “nearing the end of its review of certain marijuana grower applications, thereby allowing it to soon register additional entities authorized to produce marijuana for research purposes.”
Based on the applications received so far, the DEA claims that several organisations appear to meet the standards required for approval, which means that researchers should soon be able to obtain cannabis from facilities other than the NIDA farm.
This is pretty big news for cannabis research, as it opens up the possibility of conducting clinical trials using a much wider variety of cultivars, thereby more accurately representing real-world cannabis use.
Exactly when these applications are expected to be rubber-stamped has not been announced, but it certainly seems that the federal monopoly over research-grade cannabis is in its death throes.
[i] Vergara D, Bidwell LC, Gaudino R, Torres A, Du G, Ruthenburg TC, Decesare K, Land DP, Hutchison KE, Kane NC. Compromised external validity: federally produced cannabis does not reflect legal markets. Scientific Reports. 2017 Apr 19;7(1):1-8. – https://www.nature.com/articles/srep46528
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