At the only facility allowed to produce marijuana under federal law, government growers are beginning to expand their selection of cannabis.
The NIDA-sponsored farm is located at the University of Mississippi and is operated by a team of nine. Last year, the National Institute on Drug Abuse paid the university $847,000 to run the facility, which provides cannabis for researchers across the country.
For decades, the farm has only produced a narrow range of plants – varieties with high THC and low CBD levels, according to Mahmoud Elsohly, PhD, director of the NIDA Marijuana Project.
But with interest in medical marijuana taking off, Dr. Elsohly and his team are hoping to offer new strains, especially those with higher levels of the non-psychoactive ingredient cannabidiol (CBD).
According to Dr. Elsohly, they have now successfully cultivated a second variety of marijuana containing equal amounts of CBD and THC. Later this year, he hopes to grow a high-CBD, low-THC variety, much like the strain used to make ‘Charlotte’s Web’ oil.
“With all the publicity going on right now, I’m sure somebody is going to request that,” he says.
Since 1968, the facility has supplied marijuana for researchers and for a handful of patients in the Compassionate IND program – a federal program that began under court order in 1976, but stopped accepting patients in 1992.
Today, the program has four surviving members who continue to receive monthly shipments of pre-rolled marijuana joints from NIDA.
The Mississippi facility is also the only legal source of cannabis for scientists who wish to study it.
Interestingly, while researchers have long accused federal agencies of blocking research on marijuana’s medical uses, just this month a team received approval to purchase government-grown marijuana and study its potential for treating PTSD.
Likewise, clinical trials involving another form of cannabis began earlier this year.
The drug, Epidiolex, is a pharmaceutical-grade cannabis extract containing high levels of CBD and only trace amounts of THC. Orrin Devinsky, MD is overseeing one of the trials at New York University.
Although Epidiolex is manufactured outside the U.S., Dr. Devinsky says it took six months to navigate regulatory barriers for the drug, which is still considered marijuana under federal law.
Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance, which are defined as the most dangerous drugs with no medical uses. The classification places cannabis in the most restrictive category of controlled substances – alongside drugs like heroin and MDMA.
On the other hand, Epidiolex cannot get anyone high and shows promise at stopping seizures in children who fail to respond to conventional treatments.
“It’s a terrible, terrible paradox,” explains Dr. Devinsky. “The federal government is severely limiting the research that we can do.”