In the world of cannabis research, the landscape is about to dramatically change for US-based scientists. Researchers will soon have access to flower and other cannabis products that actually represent what consumers and patients are using in the real world.
With more than 50 years of study limited by the quality and variety of federally cultivated cannabis, this is a significant moment in cannabis research history.
The Federal Monopoly on Cannabis Production
Up until 2021, the United States government maintained a strict monopoly on cultivating cannabis for research. Starting in 1968, all researchers seeking a legal supply of cannabis to complete a federally funded study had to acquire it from a single regulated source.
Under the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) Drug Supply Program, the University of Mississippi was America’s pot farmer. But, problematically, the types of cannabis cultivated at this facility haven’t kept up with the cannabis available on the black market or, more recently, from legal markets.
At the University of Mississippi, the most potent flower produced contains 6.7 percent THC. Although labelled as “high” THC under this program, it would be sold as low THC in legal markets today. A relatively recent study concluded that this product is more closely related to hemp than to THC-rich cannabis.
The 2017 report on “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids” from the National Academies Press reported that cannabis sourced from Mississippi was often stored for years in a freezer. Not a good option for maintaining the integrity of the flower.
The facility also doesn’t make any popular consumer products now sold across the country, including concentrates, edibles, topicals and more.
An End to the Prohibition on Cannabis Research
Cannabis prohibition in the US cut off supply from patients, recreational consumers, and researchers over the last half a century. Even federally funded research facilities looking to explore the risks of cannabis use found it challenging to access the plant.
In 2016, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) contemplated evolving their outdated cannabis research and research supply policies. A total of 33 applicants submitted proposals to the DEA to develop and expand the production of cannabis for research purposes.
But that was in 2016. In 2019, every single one of these applications to the DEA was stalled in bureaucratic limbo. This effectively prohibited any new federally funded cannabis research in the US, no matter what the purpose.
One of the applicants, the Scottsdale Research Institute, launched a lawsuit against the DEA for the lengthy delay. This lawsuit eventually triggered a memo leak from within the federal government.
The leaked memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) detailed a staunchly anti-cannabis research stance. Not only did it oppose expanding the program, but the OLC also believed the current production of research cannabis was illegal.
The lawsuit forced the hand of the DEA, which promptly processed all backlogged applications in August 2019. This announcement, combined with a change in administration at the end of 2020, means the DEA is setting a new course for expanded cannabis research.
New Cultivators Approved for a Federal Cannabis Supply
With social and political opinions rapidly changing toward cannabis as a medicine and recreational drug, there is a critical need for better quality and more representative research material.
Researchers working on federally funded studies need access to flower, concentrates, and edibles that are reflective of what consumers are actually consuming. And now, the DEA is finally working to remedy this issue.
In May 2021, the DEA issued several Memorandum of Agreements (MOAs) with licensed cultivators across the country, effectively breaking the 50-year monopoly held by the NIDA over cannabis production.
According to the announcement, “To the extent these MOAs are finalized, DEA anticipates issuing DEA registrations to these manufacturers. Each applicant will then be authorized to cultivate marijuana – up to its allotted quota – in support of the more than 575 DEA-licensed researchers across the nation.”
DEA-Approved Manufacturers to Improve Research Cannabis Quality
Within days of the DEA’s announcement, several key players within this new landscape of cannabis production began releasing data on their mega-projects.
In New Mexico, Bright Green Corporation has announced a $300 million ultra-high-tech facility just outside of Albuquerque. Next door, in Arizona, Scottsdale Research Institute has also confirmed they are one of the original recipients of an MOA. So too is the Biopharmaceutical Research Co. in California.
Excitingly, many of the MOA recipients may already have seeds (or seedlings) in the ground. Groff North America, in Pennsylvania, is one of these facilities. CEO Jeff Grzyb told MJBizDaily, “We hope to have our first material out before the end of the year.”
The DEA is currently working with these new facilities to create a new methodology around the entire NIDA-funded cannabis research program.
A Dramatic Step to Improve Cannabis Research
Suddenly, after a half-century of frustration, it will be easier than ever for researchers to explore the benefits, risks, and effects of cannabis.
No longer restricted by limited access and hemp-like flower, researchers will be able to investigate cannabis in a very real way. This will lead to better medicinal products and safer consumer recommendations. With the first harvests ready by the end of the year, it will be exciting to work in cannabis research in 2022 and beyond.