As the current political climate in the U.S. renders it impossible to ignore a growing anti-establishment sentiment, it’s important to keep in mind how deep the roots of that establishment have grown. For anyone who’s been keeping abreast of modern politics it will come as no surprise that marijuana testing and study has been filtered through the mesh of a conservative monopoly, albeit one whose foundation may be shaken if the DEA caves to the public demand for marijuana re-scheduling (or, if we dare hold our breath, de-scheduling). The center of this brashly obvious monopoly is nestled in a somewhat unassuming 12-acre facility at the University of Mississippi.
Inside the University of Mississippi’s M-Project
The University of Mississippi maintains the distinction of being the only university currently holding a contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), meaning it is also the only U.S. facility federally sanctioned to grow marijuana for the purposes of research. A lot of what the University of Mississippi does or doesn’t do with their marijuana research is hidden beneath the umbrella of the aptly titled Marijuana Research Project; commonly referred to as the M-Project. It is considered a department of both the National Center for Natural Products Research (which tests the medicinal benefits, or lack thereof, of a series of plants) and the university’s general School of Pharmacy. In March 2015, NIDA dropped another $68.7 million into the M-Project.
So what makes the University of Mississippi so special? Compliance to the common goals of NIDA and the DEA can’t hurt. Enter Mahmoud ElSohly, the pharmacologist who has been managing the M-Project for an impressive 35 years. What makes that 35 years a bit less impressive is that everything we know about marijuana through U.S. research comes through the M-Project. And admittedly, we don’t know a lot. In fact, arguably the largest complaint lobbied at the DEA scheduling of marijuana is the desperate need for more research into a plant that has indications of being able to save lives. Yet, for organizations like the DEA, more targets equal more job security. And NIDA, by definition, is more concerned with stopping drug abuse than promoting natural herbal medicine. These are the organizations that ElSohly answers to and if there’s any question as to where his loyalty lies, you need look no further than his 2014 response to marijuana legalization
in which he said to the L.A. Times
, “To have marijuana available just like that? I feel sorry for Colorado and Washington state. In a few years, you are really going to see the impact of the liberal laws they have there.” And for all the mothers of ailing children and ex-athletes lobbying for healthier alternatives to opiates, it’s not a very confidence-inducing statement to hear from a man who is basically overseeing marijuana testing for the entire country. In case you think ElSohly might have just been having a bad day in 2014, you can reference NIDA’s archaic prohibitionary literature, citing ElSohly’s research. NIDA manages to use his conclusions to connect dots between teen marijuana use and AIDS
for a twist ending M. Night Shyamalan would dismiss as too much of a stretch. But if you’re a medical researcher who has a hypothesis that marijuana may be used as a medicine to fight an ailment, the only way you’re going to get your research material is by going through ElSohly and his financial backers; the organizations paid to fight marijuana.
A Garden Grown from Confiscated Bag Seed
But the M-Project didn’t start with ElSohly. Rather the seeds of the nearly fruitless flower blooming in the fields of the University of Mississippi were sown in 1961 when an international accord dubbed the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs made the DEA’s scheduling work possible. The DEA wanted to regard marijuana as a destructive drug with no redeeming medicinal potential, surpassing cocaine in noxious possibilities. Nearly a decade later, the DEA made their baseless opinion law with the Controlled Substances Act and marijuana was officially scheduled with the same gravity as heroin.
While it would seem the door to science was pretty much closed at this point, the federal government put the DEA in a position of authority in which they could grant authorization for cannabis research to worthy organizations. Of course, that worth would be determined by the DEA. In 1968, the state of Mississippi and a handful of other states received contracts from the National Institute on Mental Health to begin growing marijuana for research. But when the DEA took over, it only authorized the University of Mississippi to continue the growing and oversee the research, despite a bevy of applicants.
Pre-dating the scheduling that effectively banned marijuana as a research subject, the 1968 grow project was an attempt to create a crop large enough to sate the rampant requests of U.S. researchers. Seeds for this project were taken from federally confiscated marijuana during busts and raids. Those wayward seeds were at the start of the garden that today grows the only source of government-authorized marijuana in the U.S.
Issues with a Monopoly on Marijuana Testing
But in the singularity of that garden lies part of the problem: there is one garden tasked with producing enough research material for an entire country. Of course, this would be a much bigger problem if the powers that be were actually sanctioning many research projects. Herein lies the most pronounced of the complaints prospective researchers are levying against the M-Project: they are forced to enter a labyrinth of regulations and absurd procedures only to present their proposals to a biased DEA for authorization. It’s not a stretch to imagine that the DEA, who sustain their purpose with the illegality of drugs, would have a vested interest in projects aimed at underlining the dangers of marijuana use and dispelling any benefits.
That’s a pretty big issue but it’s not the only complaint against the current system. NIDA admits that the cannabis they have to offer researchers measures between 2% and 6.7% THC content and .02% and .08% CBD content; far below the percentages needed by researchers and equally far below the percentages found in contemporary dispensary and black market weed. For a scientist faithfully trying to recreate the authentic conditions of modern marijuana use accurately, the comparatively low THC and CBD content of the government-authorized weed throws an obvious wrench in the gears. Researchers are rightfully frustrated that the subpar samples are making a farce of their scientific pursuits into marijuana testing.
To avoid completely demonizing the efforts of the M-Project, it’s worth noting that oncologist Don Abrams of the University of California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, a pioneer in medical marijuana as therapy for AIDS and HIV patients, praised NIDA for their quick turnaround in getting him specific strains that he had requested for his research.
Pride in Prejudice
NIDA and the University of Mississippi exhibit a sense of pride in the strict selectiveness in determining acceptable projects for cannabis research. According to Dr. Steven Gust of NIDA’s International Program, only 20 to 30 requests for project authorization are approved annually. Gust also asserts that most applicants are met with approval but claims that NIDA has nothing to do with that approval process. He clarifies that researchers seeking federal authorization and sanctioned samples must gain clearance from the Food and Drug Administration and, yes, the DEA.
When pressed about the lack of variety in strains expressed by some frustrated would-be researchers, Gust admitted the M-Project was lacking. However, his reasoning for the lack of diversity seemed a bit flimsy. He expressed concerns that the variation in growing conditions and similar factors would make a wide variety of strains too expensive in both time and resources. Yet, anyone with even moderate growing experience would raise an eyebrow to that assertion.
Changing the Board and with it the Game
Earlier this year, the DEA announced that they would be reviewing their classification of marijuana for a potential rescheduling by mid-year. Of course, the DEA may hold fast to marijuana’s current scheduling but, at this point, their perspective radically clashes with public opinion in the U.S. If marijuana is removed from its Schedule I classification, you can bet the M-Project will undergo some radical changes. With marijuana back on the menu for researchers, the sole garden at the University of Mississippi won’t be enough to satisfy the sample requests. Applications to farm marijuana for labs will most likely be taken a little more seriously. The Department of Microbiology and Physiological Systems (MaPS)
at the University of Massachusetts has already indicated that they will be resubmitting their application if the rescheduling goes through. The DEA had previously denied their application.
While the problems presented by the marijuana monopoly of the M-Project aren’t without a solution, it seems that the solution is solely within the DEA’s power to realize or reject (at least for the time being). However, you can only stand against the current of public interest for so long before the deluge washes you away in a torrent of flood water. The DEA has been pushing against that current for a while now and may be slowly acquiescing to the inevitable. To this day, NIDA asserts that a 10% THC level is on the high end, while dispensary weed in Colorado averages at an 18.7% THC level. Are these the people that should be regulating U.S. marijuana testing? With NIDA and its appointed M-Project personnel spouting outdated “science” along with the DEA’s failing agenda at demonizing marijuana, the time for reform is now. And if re-scheduling goes through as hoped, maybe medical researchers will finally get their hands on the good stuff.