Steve Herin, a master grower at Incredibles, works on repotting marijuana plants in a grow facility last August in Denver. (Denver Post file)

Colorado seeks federal OK for state colleges to grow pot

Colorado has made an unusual plea to federal authorities: Let our colleges grow pot.

In a letter sent last month, the state attorney general’s office asks federal health and education officials for permission for Colorado’s colleges and universities to “obtain marijuana from non-federal government sources” for research purposes.

The letter isn’t more specific on how the state’s higher-education institutions might score weed. But it was sent pursuant to a law passed in 2014 requiring state officials to ask that Colorado colleges and universities be allowed “to cultivate marijuana and its component parts.”

“Current research is riddled with bias or insufficiencies and often conflict with one another,” reads the letter, written by deputy attorney general David Blake. “It is critical that we be allowed to fill the void of scientific research, and this may only be done with your assistance and cooperation.”

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The request is a longshot.

While marijuana is, with qualifications, legal in Colorado, it remains illegal under federal law, and getting permission to conduct research on cannabis requires clearing a set of high hurdles — approval from multiple federal agencies and strict requirements on how marijuana must be handled and stored. Researchers that work without the federal government’s blessing risk losing crucial federal funding for their institutions, not to mention possible imprisonment.

An international treaty that the United States signed onto requires the federal government to designate only one place in the country that can legally grow marijuana for research. Since 1968, that place has been the University of Mississippi’s National Center for Natural Products Research, which cultivates cannabis on a 12-acre plot and sends it to approved researchers.

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Coincidentally, the National Institute on Drug Abuse recently put the government’s pot-farm contract up for rebid. Applicants needed to have 12 acres of “secured and video-monitored” outdoor space and 1,000 square feet of indoor space to grow marijuana and to be able to make marijuana extractions, test for potency and “prepare, preferably by hand-rolling, a small batch of marijuana cigarettes,” according to the official solicitation.

The contract’s winner is expected to be announced in the next couple of months. A spokeswoman for the National Institute on Drug Abuse would not say how many institutions applied for the contract or where they were.

Spokesmen for the University of Colorado and Colorado State University said their schools did not apply.

The Drug Enforcement Administration in 2014 massively increased the amount of pot the government’s official supplier can grow — from 21 kilograms to 650 kilograms. The increase was the result of a boom in marijuana research interest, and the University of Mississippi has pledged to grow new strains of marijuana to give researchers more options for their studies.

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Still, the Colorado attorney general’s letter says the federal government falls short of being able to supply researchers with the kinds of products available in Colorado’s commercial marijuana market. State health officials have just approved up to $8.4 million in grants for marijuana studies, some of which will examine Colorado-specific products. But the attorney general’s office says more needs to be done.

“We need the support of our federal partners to overcome the inertia that continues to complicate state efforts in this area,” the letter states.

John Ingold: 303-954-1068, or

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