Pubdate: Fri, 21 Mar 2014
Source: Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
Copyright: 2014 Sun-Sentinel Company
Author: Rob Hotakainen, McClatchy Washington Bureau
Page: 14A


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

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.

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

That's what makes the Mississippi and North Carolina operations
unique, as the only federally sanctioned growing-and-distribution 

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. ... 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. ... It's the National Institute on Drug
Abuse, it's not the National Institute on Medical Help, right?"
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