Article by Caleb Hellerman, PBS
Sue Sisley, a primary care physician in Scottsdale, Arizona, recalls the moment she picked up the carefully wrapped package fresh from the delivery truck. Nearly two years after Sisley and her colleagues were awarded a grant to study marijuana as a treatment for 76 military veterans suffering from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, her shipment of the drug was finally in hand.
But minutes later, as she opened the packets to weigh the drug – as required by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration – her enthusiasm turned to dismay. It didn’t look like marijuana. Most of it looked like green talcum powder.
“It didn’t resemble cannabis. It didn’t smell like cannabis,” Sisley says. What’s more, laboratory testing found that some of the samples were contaminated with mold, while others didn’t match the chemical potency Sisley had requested for the study.
There’s only one source of marijuana for clinical research in the United States. And “they weren’t able to produce what we were asking for,” Sisley says.
In January — four months and three rounds of testing after that first delivery — Sisley and researchers working with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) were finally able to enroll their first subjects. But the delay and the reasons behind it have raised questions about the reliability of the facility responsible for supplying marijuana to every clinical study in the country.
The marijuana came from a 12-acre farm at the University of Mississippi, run by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Since 1968, it has been the only facility licensed by the DEA to produce the plant for clinical research. While eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana — and all but a handful allow at least some medical cannabis — growing the plant in large quantities remains forbidden under federal law. For all practical purposes, that means that any medical study that wants to use marijuana on human subjects must go through the University of Mississippi.