With 29 states and counting currently allowing medical marijuana, research on new and better usages is becoming increasingly important.
Much of the research community relies on the University of Mississippi, the only federally authorized grower of marijuana, under a contract with the National Institute of Drug Abuse, to supply the plant material needed to continue exploring medicinal marijuana research.
“We are doing our best to make sure that materials are available for research for whatever indications, whatever varieties, whatever chemical compositions is needed for doing that research,” said Mahmoud ElSohly, PhD, the co-director of the marijuana project as part of the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy’s National Center for Natural Products Research, in an interview with R&D Magazine. “Our main function is to standardize marijuana for research. We do not use any herbicides or pesticides, we do not use spray; it’s basically organically grown.”
The university currently conducts research on the botanical, pharmacological and chemical properties of the cannabis plant and ultimately supplies the research community through the university’s partnership with the National Institute on Drug Abuse Drug Supply Program. This program supports the development and commercialization of U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved drug products derived from cannabis.
Along with growing the cannabis plants used for research, the group also monitors the potency of illicit marijuana seized by law enforcement and manufactures extracts from cannabis plants for investigators.
There are 483 known compounds in a cannabis plant, including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive part and cannabidiol (CDB), which has shown to have a downregulating effect on disordered thinking and anxiety.
There are three major groups of marijuana—the drug type that is high THC and low CDB, the fiber type which is high CDB and low THC and a hybrid form that has the same levels of both THC and CDB. From the three different types of marijuana, the researchers grow 14 different sub-varieties at the facility.
“Traditionally the program was focused mainly on the high THC variety, so we only had one variety that was available to investigators,” he said. “That’s because that’s the variety that is being used by more than 90 percent of the [marijuana users] in the U.S. Investigators started inquiring about other varieties, so in 2014 we grew different varieties.”
The researchers currently have about 12 acres of outdoor growing space. ElSohly said they usually only grow on an acre to a 1.5-acre plot of land at time, producing more than 500 kilograms of plant material. They also have a small indoor growing facility where they can grow up to 10 kilograms of marijuana.
According to ElSohly, the University of Mississippi has had a contract to grow marijuana for research purposes with the federal government since 1968 that is competitively bid every five years.
However, the Mississippi team has not grown since 2014, as they await a growing quota from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
“The government has already exercised the option to grow this year, which means we should have been in the field last month,” he said. “But we are still not in the field; we can’t even begin to make the cuttings for the plant that will grow in the field until we get approval from the DEA. Working with marijuana, because it is a schedule I controlled substance, you have a lot more regulations than if it was an uncontrolled plant material.”
He doesn’t know what the future will hold regarding marijuana research and use in the U.S. “As far as where marijuana is going, it is up in the air depending on how the regulators are going to finally decide whether they are going to legalize marijuana or bring it back to enforcing the federal law,” said ElSohly.