Pubdate: Tue, 08 Apr 2014
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2014 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Rob Hotakainen, Mcclatchy Newspapers


Government Gives Research Money to Drug's Opponents, Say Some

WASHINGTON - As the nation's only truly legal supplier of marijuana,
the federal government keeps tight control of its stash, 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 RTI International in North
Carolina, all at taxpayer expense.

Though Congress has long banned marijuana, the operation is
legitimate. It's run by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of
the Department of Health and Human Services, which doles out the pot
for federally approved research projects.

While officials defend their monopoly, critics say the government is
hogging all the pot and giving it mainly to researchers who want to
find harmful effects linked to the drug.

U.S. officials say the federal government must be the sole supplier of
legal marijuana under a 1961 international drug control treaty. But
they concede 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 have become
favorite targets to accuse of bias, with both prohibited by Congress
from spending money to promote legalization.

Some critics hope the situation will change; federal officials
recently approved a University of Arizona proposal that will let
researchers study whether smoking or vaporizing marijuana could help
veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. The researchers got the
green light to provide the equivalent of two joints per day to 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 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. "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 summer, after
getting 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 prolegalization 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, up from 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.

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 RTI International, 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

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 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
at 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, 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.

Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), an anti-legalization
group headed by former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island,
recently 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, Doblin said in a statement that the department's
approval marked a "historic shift."

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. 
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MAP posted-by: Jo-D