Residents of 23 US states can buy medical marijuana to treat everything from cancer pain to anxiety, but US scientists must wade through onerous paperwork to score the drug for study. Their sole dealer is the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which has a contract with the University of Mississippi in Oxford to produce marijuana for research purposes.
The agency has long faced complaints that its marijuana is too weak to represent what is sold on the street, and contains low levels of the non-psychedelic chemicals that show therapeutic promise for conditions such as epilepsy and chronic pain. Now, with legal marijuana increasingly available to the US public, NIDA is quietly changing course—working to expand the amount and variety of the drug available for study.
“We want to be able to evaluate the claims that marijuana is therapeutically beneficial” and to explore treatments for addiction, says Nora Volkow, director of NIDA in Rockville, Maryland.
In 2014, the institute increased its spending on research marijuana by 50%. Annual production at the University of Mississippi farm, where all the agency supplies are grown, soared from 18 to 600 kilograms, and the crop harvested late last year includes two new strains. One has low concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), marijuana’s primary active ingredient, but high levels of cannabidiol, a non-hallucinogenic substance that seems to have therapeutic effects. The second has relatively balanced levels of the two chemicals.
Mahmoud ElSohly, who directs the University of Mississippi cultivation programme, says that the new strains will soon be ready to ship to researchers. But the farm’s improved offerings may not appease NIDA’s critics—including US states such as Colorado, which legalized recreational pot use in 2012. In December, the Colorado state government asked the federal government to allow state universities to grow marijuana for research, citing bureaucratic hurdles in obtaining products from NIDA and from private growers overseas.