NIDA Expands Federal Growth Of Marijuana For Researchers

By John Lavitt 03/23/15

TREATMENT PRO NEWS: The National Institute on Drug Abuse has begun to change its marijuana policy so that medical researchers can gain greater access.


Several important trends in the nation’s relationship to marijuana have caused the National Institute on Drug Abuse to begin to alter their policy on NIDA-grown weed. The marijuana that NIDA has been distributing is not as potent, with respect to THC content, as that sold on the street. At the same time, the NIDA product does not contain as much of the potentially therapeutic cannabidiol that scientists want to study for its benefits in treating a variety of illnesses. Additionally, the growing availability of legal marijuana is changing public perception of the drug, so it’s important that scientists are able to study its effects using varieties of marijuana that are available to the public.

NIDA recognizes that researchers studying medical marijuana require access to a wider variety of strains, including some with a higher potency. As part of their ongoing mission, the National Institute on Drug Abuse supplies drugs to scientists for research projects. Researchers have complained that the marijuana NIDA supplies is too weak compared with what is available to the public. Beyond such complaints, NIDA's willingness to expand the variety of cannabis available to researchers is motivated by the sudden wide availability of legal marijuana.

Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of NIDA, told Nature, "We want to be able to evaluate the claims that marijuana is therapeutically beneficial." The goal of Dr. Volkow is to help clarify the scientific research about medical marijuana, revealing both the negatives as well as the positives. The problem is the recent wave of marijuana legalization has altered the societal perception of the potential harm done by the drug.

In her interview with The Fix, Dr. Volkow discussed these challenges in regards to the perception of marijuana in American society, “All these trends add to the confusion that young people must feel when the public message so clearly contradicts the scientific message. We are very concerned that these trends will steadily erode the perception among youth that smoking marijuana is not good for them. And this erosion, surveys show, has a close historic correlation with increased use.”

Grown at the University of Mississippi, the United States' supply of marijuana is managed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In 2014, the farm increased production from about 40 pounds to more than 1,300 pounds. At the same time, NIDA increased its spending on research marijuana by 50%. Still, NIDA’s strongest proposed strain contains 12% THC whereas most of the pot that's seized by the DEA contains 20% THC. THC is the primary psychoactive component in marijuana.

The University of Mississippi has started growing two new strains that will soon be available to researchers. One of them contains high levels of cannabidiol, a substance that appears to have therapeutic effects and is championed by medical marijuana proponents. Such strains will allow researchers to evaluate pot's ability to reduce pain. As the director of the University of Mississippi cultivation program, Mahmoud ElSohly claims the new strains will soon be ready to ship to researchers

An ancillary problem is that it’s still not easy for researchers to access the marijuana they need for their studies. At $7 per cigarette, NIDA currently charges scientists far more than the clinical-grade pot grown in Canada and Israel. The application process is so arduous and lengthy that Colorado has asked the federal government if it would allow universities in the state to grow their own plants for research. Even though Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, researchers in Colorado still can’t employ local crops in their research because the drug remains illegal under federal law.

NIDA's position in regard to research marijuana may be coming to an end. Bipartisan legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate on March 10. The bill would allow at least three more FDA-approved institutions to cultivate marijuana for research purposes while getting rid of the review process that greatly slows down research studies.

If the federal government decides to expand legal marijuana production significantly, Canada could serve as a model. In April 2014, the Canadian government began allowing private firms to apply to grow medical marijuana. It has since awarded 16 licenses. Canadian researchers who want to perform clinical trials obtain the drug by partnering with a pot grower, directly resulting in a wider diversity of marijuana strains available to science.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.