WASHINGTON — As the nation’s only truly legal supplier of marijuana, the U.S. government keeps tight control of its stash, which is grown in a 12-acre fenced garden on the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
From there, part of the crop is shipped to Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina, where it’s rolled into cigarettes, all at taxpayer expense.
Even though Congress has long banned marijuana, the operation is legitimate. It’s run by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which doles out the pot for federally approved research projects.
While U.S. officials defend their monopoly, critics say the government is hogging all the pot and giving it mainly to researchers who want to find harms linked to the drug.
U.S. officials say the federal government must be the sole supplier of legal marijuana in order to comply with a 1961 international drug-control treaty. But they admit they’ve done relatively little to fund pot research projects looking for marijuana’s benefits, following their mandate to focus on abuse and addiction.
“We’ve been studying marijuana since our inception. Of course, the large majority of that research has been on the deleterious effects, the harmful effects, on cognition, behavior and so forth,” said Steven Gust, special assistant to the director at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which was created in 1974.
With polls showing a majority of Americans supporting legalization, pot backers say the government should take a more evenhanded approach. The National Institute on Drug Abuse and the White House drug czar have become favorite targets to accuse of bias, with both prohibited by Congress from spending money to do anything to promote legalization.
Some critics hope the situation will change; federal officials last week approved a University of Arizona proposal that will let researchers try to determine whether smoking or vaporizing marijuana could help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD. The researchers got the green light to provide the equivalent of two joints per day for 50 veterans.
It was a long time coming.
Suzanne Sisley, clinical assistant professor of internal medicine and psychiatry at the University of Arizona’s medical school, said the Health and Human Services Department waited more than three years to approve the project after it was first sanctioned by the Food and Drug Administration. She said the extra federal review should be scrapped and that approval by the FDA should be sufficient for a study to proceed.
“Nobody could explain it — it’s indefensible,” she said in an interview. “The only thing we can assume is that it is politics trumping science.”
After the long delay, Sisley said she’s excited to get started and hopes to launch the project late this spring or early this summer, after getting the marijuana from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She said pressure by veterans helped get the project approved.
For critics, the process is far too slow. In the fight to sway public opinion, the research battles have assumed a sense of urgency, with opponents and proponents of legalization scrambling to find more evidence to advance their positions.
For opponents, it means trying to link pot use to such things as increased highway deaths, student dropouts and emergency hospital admissions. That could help defeat a plan to legalize pot for recreational use in Alaska, set for an August vote.
For supporters, it means trying to find new ways to use pot to treat diseases. That could get voters in more states to approve medical marijuana; 20 states and the District of Columbia already have done so, and Florida could join the list in November.
Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group, said President Barack Obama should end the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s monopoly and remove all other research barriers. The legalization of marijuana “is inevitable” and more studies are needed, he said.
“That is exactly why federal law and policies shouldn’t tie the hands of scientists by favoring certain kinds of research over others,” Riffle said.
The national institute’s Gust said the federal government is open to the idea of looking for more medical applications for marijuana and that it’s a “red herring” to say that his agency is blocking research.
“This is an untruth that’s been put out there by certain groups, and quite frankly I wonder if it’s not having the perverse effect of actually decreasing the amount of applications and interest in research,” Gust said.
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National Institute on Drug Abuse officials said they gave more than $30 million in government grants to finance 69 marijuana-related research projects in 2012, a big jump from the 22 projects that received less than $6 million in 2003. While the institute would not provide exact figures, Gust said it has funded at least five to 10 projects examining possible medical applications.
The institute also provides marijuana for privately funded projects approved by the Health and Human Services Department. Of the 18 research applicants who requested marijuana from 1999 to 2011, 15 got approval, officials said.
The University of Mississippi received nearly $847,000 in 2013 to produce and distribute the pot for the research projects, mainly Mexican, Colombian, Turkish and Indian varieties.
The university grows 6 kilograms (a little more than 13 pounds) of marijuana each year, or more if the demand is higher. Nine employees are involved in the work. Among the university’s tasks, it analyzes marijuana confiscated by drug enforcement agents and sends “bulk plant material” to North Carolina’s Research Triangle Institute, just outside of Durham at Research Triangle Park, where marijuana cigarettes are produced and packaged. Some of the pot is sent to a handful of Americans who won the right to smoke the drug for medical reasons under a court settlement in 1976, 20 years before California became the first state to approve medical marijuana.
While voters in Colorado and Washington state legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2012, their decision to tax and sell the drug still violates federal law. In August, the Justice Department said it would not interfere as long as both states do a good job of policing themselves. But federal authorities have the right to intervene as they see fit, just as they do in any of the states that allow medical marijuana.
That’s what makes the Mississippi and North Carolina operations unique, as the only federally sanctioned growing-and-distribution operations.
Gust said the federal government must be the only supplier of marijuana to satisfy the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. That’s the same 53-year-old treaty that the International Narcotics Control Board says the Obama administration has violated by allowing states to sell pot.
U.S. officials are facing plenty of fire, even though they’ve made it clear they’re willing to fight to protect their monopoly.
Last year, Lyle Craker, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, gave up on his plans to grow marijuana for research, ending a 12-year battle with the government. As a horticulturist, he said, he wanted to grow various types of marijuana plants to see what happened under different environmental conditions and then supply the drug to doctors for clinical trials.
In January, an organization called Cannabis Science Inc., which backs marijuana drug development in the private sector, called on Obama to sign an executive order to decriminalize all pot research.
And in February, the Epilepsy Foundation said that more marijuana research could aid the more than 1 million Americans with epilepsy who are living with uncontrolled seizures. The organization said that efforts to stop seizures “should not be determined by one’s ZIP code,” a reference to the patchwork of laws governing marijuana use around the nation.
Warren Lammert of Boston, chairman of the Epilepsy Foundation, said that the monopoly impedes research and that the federal government’s ban on marijuana makes it impossible for doctors to study a drug that’s now available as medicine to children in states such as Colorado.
“We’ve actually had more than 100 families who are living with epilepsy move to Colorado to get access for their kids to a preparation of medical marijuana,” said Lammert, whose 16-year-old daughter, Sylvie, has daily waves of seizures caused by her epilepsy. “But marijuana that’s available to patients can’t be studied.”
Some legalization opponents are on board, too.
This month, Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), an anti-legalization group headed by former Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, said the government should do a better job of promoting research into components of marijuana, especially to help people with seizures and cancer pain.
Rick Doblin, a Harvard-educated researcher who heads the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, got approval for the University of Arizona PTSD study after threatening to mobilize veterans to come to Washington to protest the government’s lack of action. His organization, based in Santa Cruz, Calif., has helped raise money for the Arizona study.
The Health and Human Services Department’s marijuana review committee said it changed its mind after Doblin made significant changes in his proposal, including recruiting more investigators for the study.
After being notified on Friday, Doblin said in a statement that the department’s approval marked a “historic shift” and said the tide had turned for medical marijuana.
Others were more tempered.
“It’s just one study. â¦ Still, it’s nice to see, if only this once, politics no longer standing in the way of science,” Riffle said.
Craker said the push for legalization is sure to gain more momentum as more states join the cause, but he’s not expecting federal officials to start singing a new tune anytime soon.
“I don’t think there will be any change,” he said. “They have taken a very strong line on this. â¦ It’s the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it’s not the National Institute on Medical Help, right?”