Summary: Newsweek investigates the politics surrounding private funding for medical marijuana research. MAPS Founder Rick Doblin, Ph.D., is interviewed about the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)’s recent policy change that eliminated the federal monopoly on marijuana for research. “Why would someone in the private sector spend money when you can’t take the next step?” says Doblin.
Originally appearing here.
As America stands on the precipice of legitimizing and legalizing cannabis to a degree considered unthinkable a mere decade ago, citizens have greeted the 420-friendly climate as either the harbinger of doom or the dawn of a green-tinted golden age. But one aspect of cannabis culture which seems to have captured broad support across the board is continued research into the plant’s possible medicinal properties.
Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have made statements in support of medicinal marijuana. “Marijuana is such a big thing,” the Republican nominee for president said at a rally in Nevada last year. “I think medical should happen—right? Don’t we agree? I think so.” More recently, Clinton opined on Jimmy Kimmel Live that “There’s some great evidence about what marijuana can do for people who are in cancer treatment, who have other kinds of chronic diseases, who are suffering from intense pain.” She added, “There’s great, great anecdotal evidence, but I want us to start doing the research.”
But what any cannabis researchers would use to broaden our understanding of the plant’s medicinal qualities comes from a single source in the heart of Dixie—a 12-acre farm on the campus of the University of Mississippi. Researchers have to satisfy the demands of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA—the federal agency mainly responsible for ensuring your Big Mac isn’t made out of rat meat or that aspirin isn’t cut with baking soda) before gaining access to any of the Ole Miss herb. That means installing expensive security measures, such as heavy-duty safes to store the cannabis as well as high-grade security systems that can cost thousands of dollars just to obtain a license from the DEA to work with a Schedule I substance such as cannabis. Then the FDA needs to approve the proposed study before the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) sells the cannabis in bulk to researchers for roughly $1,113 a pound.
Wading through the alphabet soup of agencies to gain approval can be an arduous task, according to some researchers. “It took me three years from the time I got funding to the time I could enroll my first subject,” Dr. Mark Wallace, a researcher studying pain treatments at the University of California, San Diego, told journalists with the Carnegie-Knight News21 program in 2015. Even after obtaining the federally grown cannabis, some researchers still remain dissatisfied with the information on the material provided to them. NIDA only recently began sorting their cannabis into different categories based on the amount of THC and CBD they contain, and the organization hasn’t fully identified other key elements making up the plants they send out. “NIDA only just now started looking at other cannabinoids,” says Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of MAPS, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing the research of marijuana and other psychedelics. “They don’t tell us what the terpenes are.” But according to Doblin, the biggest hurdle the current system of procuring cannabis places in front of research doesn’t involve the quality of the product, but the lack of incentive it gives to America’s private sector to jump in.
The current regulations on federal marijuana prohibit providing researchers cannabis that will later be developed for commercial sale, and because any drug derived from cannabis needs to be developed from the exact same source of the plant to meet FDA regulations, pharmaceutical companies don’t have a motive to fund any research using federally grown cannabis—the only legal kind. “Why would someone in the private sector spend money when you can’t take the next step?” Doblin says. “People want to get their money back.” Until pharmaceutical companies see a path to make serious green from cannabis, medical research remains in the hands of academics who are contributing to public knowledge but are often strapped for cash.