The United States may soon enter into a new era of medicine, after the Drug Enforcement Administration vowed Thursday to make it easier for researchers and private companies to grow or obtain marijuana for study.
The move opens the door to broader university research of the active chemicals — called cannabinoids — that make marijuana tick. The cannabinoids found in marijuana mirror chemicals produced by the human body to regulate everything from mood to appetite to sleep, and researchers have long been curious about how they can be deployed medically.
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In addition, the DEA said Thursday that private companies working on new drug development will be able to apply to grow marijuana, meaning that, for the first time in generations, for-profit companies could develop marijuana-based medicines in America with the federal government’s approval.
“I regard this as a red-letter day,” said Robert Sievers, a chemistry professor at the University of Colorado who studies cannabinoids. “If things work as they should, this will be the first day of a cannabinoid pharmaceutical industry.”
That’s the optimistic view, at least.
But by also deciding Thursday to keep marijuana in the most restricted class of controlled substances, the DEA left significant hurdles in place for researchers hoping to study cannabis. And, because of that, some scientists are uncertain about how much actually will change.
Any company or university hoping to grow marijuana with the DEA’s blessing will still have to receive multiple approvals, undergo several inspections and lay out serious money on security equipment over a multiyear application process.
What’s more, the DEA’s announcement does nothing to change what some researchers in Colorado have said is the biggest problem facing them: They can’t test or study the kinds of marijuana products people are buying from stores in the state because the federal government considers those products illegal.
“So,” said Dr. Jacci Bainbridge, a professor at the CU Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, “it seems like they’re giving us a little leeway, but there are still so many barriers you have to get over.”
The split opinions mimic the deeply schismatic state of marijuana policy in the country.
While 25 states and the District of Columbia have approved marijuana for medical use, the DEA’s announcement Thursday reaffirmed the federal government’s view that marijuana has no accepted medical use. While stores selling marijuana line the streets near many of Colorado’s research institutions, the only federally legal place for scientists in Colorado to obtain marijuana for study was, until Thursday, a lab at the University of Mississippi.
That monopoly was a frequent source of complaints from researchers, who said the lab struggled to produce marijuana of the potency or precise chemical composition that they required.
“They either scrap the study,” Brookings Institution senior fellow John Hudak, a marijuana policy expert, said of the researchers, “or they change the study to meet what the supply can offer. And that’s not good science.”
In lifting the monopoly Thursday, the DEA’s goal is to diversify the marijuana supply available to researchers, agency spokesman Russell Baer said. University and private researchers hoping to grow marijuana must first apply for permission from the DEA. They must also obtain additional OKs from the DEA before distributing any of that marijuana to approved researchers.
If any of the research leads to marijuana-derived experimental drugs, Baer said the federal government could look at rescheduling those substances to categories of lower restriction, making study of them and their successors easier. In other words, the new research could selectively break down the federal prohibition on cannabis part by part, even as the whole plant remains illegal.
“Parts of it could definitely move,” Baer said. “And I believe that’s kind of the direction this is moving toward.”
But that’s only if the research takes off as expected. The first question that needs to be answered: Do any researchers actually want to grow pot?
A professor at the University of Massachusetts named Lyle Craker has been trying for years to gain DEA approval to grow marijuana for research. But Bainbridge said, when CU studied the idea in recent years, the university concluded that the cost — the space, the electricity demands, the security requirements — was just too much. Meanwhile, she said, the University of Mississippi recently expanded its marijuana-cultivation facility. Last year, it had DEA approval to produce as much as three-quarters of a ton of cannabis.
Add in the other regulatory hurdles, Bainbridge said, and there might not be many researchers who want to push ahead.
“The glass is kind of half-empty,” she said.
Even Sievers, the CU chemist, worries that optimism could be fleeting.
He soon hopes to apply for DEA approval to grow marijuana for his studies. But first, he said, he needs his application just to be a DEA-approved marijuana researcher to go through.
He’s been waiting for three years.
“There are so many people who are interested in so many ways in what the promise could be,” he said. “But I think everybody is also looking over their shoulders.”