WASHINGTON — The only marijuana available for research in the U.S. is locked down by federal regulators who are more focused on studies to keep people off the drug than helping researchers learn how it might be beneficial.
Marijuana is a trend that “will peak like tobacco then people will see their error,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which serves as the gatekeeper for U.S. marijuana research through its oversight of a pot farm that grows the only plants that can be used in clinical trials.
Meanwhile, marijuana advocates say NIDA’s control over research has made almost impossible their ability to test the drug against ailments such as pain, cancer-related nausea and epilepsy.
The federal researchers aren’t “set up to study potential medical benefits, so it’s inappropriate for NIDA to have a monopoly on supply,” said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington-based group that lobbies to change marijuana laws.
Twenty-two states have approved medical marijuana use, two allow recreational use and the House of Representatives voted May 30 to block the Justice Department from interfering with state medical marijuana laws. Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican, will lead an oversight hearing Friday in Washington on pot research as part of an examination of changing societal attitudes about the drug.
NIDA contracts with the University of Mississippi to grow the only pot that researchers in the U.S. can use in studies. To obtain the product, scientists must be working on an NIH-funded project or pass review by a Department of Health and Human Services panel.
Groups like the Marijuana Policy Project and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies are pushing for the Drug Enforcement Administration to grant additional licenses to grow research marijuana.
The Epilepsy Foundation has called for an end to DEA restrictions that limit research on marijuana’s effect on seizures. The Landover, Maryland-based group wants the drug agency to change marijuana’s classification as a Schedule 1 product, which means it’s considered highly addictive with no medical benefit.
Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of the psychedelic studies association, has worked since 2001 with a University of Massachusetts professor to expand the number of growers. He is now looking to growers approved by the Canadian government to help in the cause.
NIDA doesn’t have enough marijuana supply even if the agency would support trials on the medicinal benefits, he said. After a three-year battle, Doblin’s association was approved in March to conduct a study on marijuana and veterans with post- traumatic stress disorder. NIDA can’t get the group enough of the type of pot it needs until 2015, he said in an interview.
Scientists, including Doblin’s group, are increasingly seeking marijuana that is high in cannabidiol, a compound found in pot plants, and low in THC, the mind-altering substance in marijuana, to study the effects of both without an intense high. The University of Mississippi is trying to produce more of the plants researchers are seeking, said Mahmoud ElSohly, the professor who presides over the federal government’s pot farm.
ElSohly said the goal is to grow as many as 5,000 plants by the end of this season, equivalent to about 600 kilograms of final product. Now the farm has about 250 kilograms of plant material on hand, he added.
“I think we need all sorts of research into the risks of marijuana,” Doblin said. “But what’s unbalanced is the obstruction of research into the benefits of marijuana.”
Three out of every four dollars spent this year on pot studies funded by the government will go toward studying abuse and addiction, according to a review of federal spending by Bloomberg News. The government has spent $69 million studying cannabis in fiscal 2014.
The National Institutes of Health has funded 196 projects on marijuana in fiscal 2014, according to an NIH database. NIDA is the lead on 142 of those projects, which make up 75 percent of the spending.
Volkow said that long-term pot use, as well as some experimenting, can lead to addiction. About 4.3 million people ages 12 and older abused the drug or had marijuana dependence in 2012, about the same as in 2002, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
“I’m open to the data, that’s why we do research,” she said in an interview. “But based on what I’ve seen, I predict that it’s going to be negative and we’re going to be in a position of trying to deal with the consequences.”
The NIH is funding 54 active grants on the therapeutic uses of marijuana, Volkow said. Half of those grants are led by NIDA, she said, and include studies examining pot’s effect on seizures and pain.
Some of NIDA’s studies on therapeutic uses also include developing treatments for marijuana addiction.
NIDA awarded McLean Hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School, $248,000 this fiscal year to study a synthetic cannabis called nabilone against marijuana dependence. Meda Pharmaceuticals markets nabilone as Cesamet to combat cancer patients’ nausea and vomiting.
The drug institute also provided $502,000 to Yale University to study a treatment for cannabis dependence that uses a fatty acid enzyme to inhibit the body’s signaling system and reduce withdrawal symptoms.
“We’re trying to do what interventions we can do now because we don’t want to wait until it’s proven harmful,” Volkow said.
There have been 15 studies on marijuana that weren’t NIH funded since 1999. The University of California’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research conducted all but two though it isn’t doing any active studies. The San Diego-based group is funded by the state government in California and looked at pot’s use in different kinds of pain and its effect on sleep.
Mica, the congressman, said he hasn’t made up his mind whether marijuana is harmful or helpful.
“States can choose to do what they’re doing,” Mica said in an interview. “My job is to sort through the smoke and the haze created by all the different implications it proposes.”
NIDA and the Food and Drug Administration are scheduled to testify at Mica’s hearing. The FDA declined to comment on its position because agency staff didn’t want to pre-empt their testimony, Jeff Ventura, an FDA spokesman, said in an e-mail.
NIDA published a review of research on marijuana’s negative effects this month in the New England Journal of Medicine. The article summarizes studies that have found teens who regularly use marijuana have lower IQs in adulthood, it increases the risk for being involved in a car accident and the drug’s addictiveness is higher for daily users and youth.
The researchers also said marijuana may help treat chronic pain and pain associated with multiple sclerosis as well as glaucoma though more study is needed.
With assistance from Phil Mattingly in Washington.