Mississippi’s Monopoly on Medical Marijuana

Posted on May 3,2016

Would it surprise you to find out that despite the federal governments staunch position of cannabis having no medical value, they have been growing it for nearly 50 years? And perhaps what’s even more of a surprise is that it isn’t being grown in places like California, Oregon, or Colorado but rather in the deep south -the University of Mississippi to be exact.

According to the University of Mississippi’s National Center for Natural Products Research, in July 1967 the university launched the “Economic Plant Garden” which became home to a National Institutes of Health-funded venture propagating marijuana for new drug discovery purposes. In 1969 the project was expanded to it’s current status now.

The government contend that Mississippi’s program (which received nearly $60 million in federal funding in 2015) is robust enough and has the breadth to provide researchers with as much cannabis as needed. Their rationale, as the Brookings Institute puts it is that “The DEA justifies this monopoly with the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs’ requirement that production of scheduled substances for research purposes be overseen by a government entity.” They also believe that because the “program has more than 130,000 ‘marijuana cigarettes’ available at varying potencies… [and] 185 ‘batches’ of bulk marijuana in quantities ranging between just a few ounces and more than 20 pounds,” that there’s enough supply to justify having one sole program for federal research.

But opponents of this policy point to a myriad of reasons why the program is flawed. For starters, this points to the hypocrisy of the federal government’s position that cannabis has no medical values since it’s categorized as a Schedule I drug along the likes of heroine, LSD, ‘magic mushrooms,’ and MDMA.

Another flaw in the current system is the potency of the program’s cannabis. A memo released by the DEA claims that the highest potency strain that the lab grew topped out at just over 9.5% THC. It would be a fallacy to think that strains of that caliber are serving researchers well. State’s with established medical and/or recreational cannabis programs sell cannabis with an average potency nearly double the government’s number. As NBC News reported, with “…Colorado’s legal bud, the average THC level is 18.7 percent, and some retail pot contains 30 percent THC or more.”

It’s also important to not forget that the Schedule I status of cannabis means that even if researchers wanted to participate in scientific studies, the probably won’t be able to. That same Brookings Institute report argues that this monopoly creates an undue-burden. As they put it, “research grade drugs that meet researchers’ specifications often take years to acquire, if they are produced at all. This creates a serious limitation on marijuana research, more so than for any other Schedule I substance. Other Schedule I substances besides cannabis are researched at privately-funded centers and licensed by the DEA. However, for cannabis the federal government continues to hold a monopoly on institutional research.

While it would be nice to see the government extend the opportunity for other institutions -both public and private- to conduct research, the fact of the matter remains that nothing will most likely change. Federal resources are spread thin as it is, and although public sentiment is trending in favor of cannabis reform, most movement for policy change will continue to come through state-sponsered activities like legislative action and ballot initiative.