Pubdate: Thu, 11 Aug 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Authors: Catherine Saint Louis and Matt Apuzzo


The Obama administration is planning to remove a major roadblock to 
marijuana research, officials said Wednesday, potentially spurring 
broad scientific study of a drug that is being used to treat dozens 
of diseases in states across the nation despite little rigorous 
evidence of its effectiveness.

The new policy is expected to sharply increase the supply of 
marijuana available to researchers.

And in taking this step, the Obama administration is further relaxing 
the nation's stance on marijuana. President Obama has said he views 
it as no more dangerous than alcohol, and the Justice Department has 
not stood in the way of states that have legalized the drug.

For years, the University of Mississippi has been the only 
institution authorized to grow the drug for use in medical studies. 
This restriction has so limited the supply of marijuana federally 
approved for research purposes that scientists said it could often 
take years to obtain it and in some cases it was impossible to get. 
But soon the Drug Enforcement Administration will allow other 
universities to apply to grow marijuana, three government officials said.

While 25 states have approved the medical use of marijuana for a 
growing list of conditions, including Parkinson's, Crohn's disease, 
Tourette's syndrome, Alzheimer's, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, the 
research to back up many of those treatments is thin. The new policy 
could begin to change that.

"It will create a supply of research-grade marijuana that is diverse, 
but more importantly, it will be competitive and you will have 
growers motivated to meet the demand of researchers," said John 
Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The new policy will be published as soon as Thursday in the federal 
register, according to the three officials, who have seen the policy 
but spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized 
to discuss it.

It is unclear how many additional universities would receive licenses 
to grow marijuana, but the new policy does not set a cap on the 
number who could qualify. Any institution that has an approved 
research protocol and the security measures needed to store dangerous 
drugs can apply.

Researchers will still have to receive approval from federal agencies 
to conduct medical studies of marijuana, including from the D.E.A. 
and the Food and Drug Administration. Those whose projects are funded 
by the National Institute on Drug Abuse will also need its consent.

But drug policy advocates, experts and researchers predicted that 
increasing the number of institutions growing marijuana will have a 
significant practical effect. The University of Mississippi's 
monopoly on that role has been a barrier.

"It's clear that this was a significant hurdle in limiting the 
quantity of clinical research taking place in the U.S.," said Paul 
Armentano, the deputy director of the National Organization for the 
Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Researchers often had difficulty getting some kinds of marijuana, 
including ones with large amounts of THC, the main ingredient in the 
drug that gets people high. Under the University of Mississippi 
monopoly, Mr. Hudak of Brookings said: "If you were a researcher who 
thought a product with high THC would help someone with a painful 
cancer, you were out of luck. You couldn't access high THC marijuana 
in the same way you could buy it in a market in Colorado," where it is legal.

As recently as June, Dr. Steven W. Gust, a special assistant to the 
director of National Institute on Drug Abuse, had disagreed with 
critics who say the monopoly has stifled research. "In the past, NIDA 
has been able to provide marijuana for every federally qualified 
research project," he said recently in an emailed response to questions.

Earlier this year, the D.E.A. had suggested that it would possibly 
remove marijuana from the list of the most restricted and dangerous 
drugs by end of June. But this week, the agency did not take such a step.

Dr. Orrin Devinsky of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at New York 
University Langone Medical Center called it "deeply disappointing" 
that the agency had not done so. He said the scientific data 
overwhelmingly indicated it should not be listed as such a dangerous drug.

The federal government still classifies marijuana as a highly 
addictive drug without medical value, as it has for 46 years. The 
D.E.A. did not say when it will answer two petitions demanding a 
change of that policy, filed separately in 2009 and 2011.

Others were relieved that the D.E.A. had moved to allow more 
institutions to grow marijuana for research, but not taken it off the 
list of the most dangerous drugs.

"They're looking at the science, taking a nuanced view," said Kevin 
A. Sabet, a former Obama administration drug-policy adviser and 
president of the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. "It's a good 
day for science."
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