08/19/2016

What Will More Research-Grade Marijuana Mean for Medical Studies?

4:01 minutes

A cannabis plant, from Shutterstock
A cannabis plant, from Shutterstock

Medical marijuana is legal in 25 states and Washington, DC, but scientists studying the drug still face tough government regulations limiting its growth and distribution.

The Drug Enforcement Administration recently removed one hurdle for medical marijuana researchers. It announced that it would increase the number of manufacturers that are allowed to grow and provide marijuana to scientists.

Under the DEA’s previous regulations, just one institution — the University of Mississippi — was authorized to grow research-grade marijuana. John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the forthcoming book “Marijuana: A Short History,” says that the new policy will contribute to faster, more comprehensive medical marijuana research.

“Right now, the monopoly is bad news,” Hudak says. “If you talk to researchers who do clinical experimentation with marijuana, looking for medical efficacy, they’ll tell you that the monopoly creates roadblocks in terms of access, in terms of the speed with which they can get the product, and with the types of strains or potency or compositions of marijuana that they want to use in their research.”

Hudak hopes that increased competition in the research-grade market will make marijuana growers more responsive to scientists’ needs — and introduce research strains that better reflect what’s already available in American dispensaries.

“The medical marijuana that you would get from a dispensary in Colorado or in any of the states that have medical marijuana programs can have very low potency or a composition that has no psychoactive ingredients, all the way up to very high potency marijuana,” Hudak says. “A lot of researchers want their research to reflect what’s going on in America, and there’s real limitations on that because of the supply from Ole Miss,” he adds, using a nickname for the university that was the sole supplier.

With more competition in the market, Hudak hopes that “designer strains” of marijuana with different levels of THC and CBD — the drug’s main psychoactive and non-psychoactive compounds, respectively — can be mixed to researchers’ needs.

Not to say that before the policy change, researchers couldn’t go elsewhere: Some states already encourage and fund medical marijuana research at the state level. But Hudak says, ultimately, federal approval is tantamount to a marijuana study’s success.

“[If] it doesn’t meet that standard of federally approved research, that means that in terms of publications, and in terms of the medical community’s embrace of that research, there can be limitations,” Hudak says. “There [are] still, at the end of the day, very few things that carry the gold standard of a federally approved medical research project.”

—Julia Franz (originally published on PRI.org)

Segment Guests

John Hudak

John Hudak is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Now it’s time to play Good Thing, Bad Thing–

[MUSIC PLAYING]

–because every story has a flip side. And today, we’re going to talk about medical marijuana. It’s legal in 25 states and DC. But one area that’s still lagging behind when it comes to medical marijuana is basic research.

Government regulations have limited the science. But last week, the DEA announced a change to one roadblock. The agency will expand the number of institutions that can grow marijuana for research.

My next guest is here to break down the good and the bad of the policy change for research. John Hudak is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington and author of the forthcoming book Marijuana– A Short History. Welcome to Science Friday.

JOHN HUDAK: Ira, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. How many institutions can now currently grow marijuana for medical research?

JOHN HUDAK: Just one. There’s a farm at the University of Mississippi, and they have the monopoly on the growth of research-grade marijuana.

IRA FLATOW: That’s not many, is it?

JOHN HUDAK: Not many, and it causes some problems for the research system.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s the good news or the bad news?

JOHN HUDAK: Well, right now, the monopoly is bad news. If you talk to researchers who do clinical experimentation with marijuana looking for medical efficacy, they’ll tell you that that monopoly creates roadblocks in terms of access, in terms of the speed with which they can get the product, and with the types of strains or potency or compositions of marijuana that they want to use in their research. The monopoly causes problems. Breaking that monopoly can only help.

IRA FLATOW: Because I’ve read stories that the potency, for example, of the marijuana used in research is just a fraction of what’s available to people on the streets.

JOHN HUDAK: Yeah, that’s right. The medical marijuana that you would get from a dispensary in Colorado or in any of the half of the states now that have medical marijuana programs, you can have very low potency or a composition that has no psychoactive ingredients all the way up to very high-potency marijuana. And a lot of researchers want their research to reflect what’s going on in America. And there’s real limitations on that because of the supply from Ole Miss.

IRA FLATOW: So what will the policy change do to make things better?

JOHN HUDAK: The policy change will mean that there will be some competition within this environment– that is, you’ll have more people growing. That means that other institutions might be better at providing in a sense designer strains, meeting the needs of researchers.

The relationship between THC and CBD, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana and the dominant non-psychoactive ingredient, can be essentially mixed to researchers’ needs. And you might have people out there– particularly there’s a researcher at the University of Massachusetts who wants to do this– who might be able to meet those researchers’ demands and at the end of the day improve the quality of research into these studies.

IRA FLATOW: Well, the legalization of marijuana is sort of a tsunami that’s going through the states right now, even though it’s still federally illegal. What’s stopping the states themselves from carrying out their own research to see how it works?

JOHN HUDAK: Well, some states are encouraging research at the state level. And they’re helping fund it. They’re encouraging it publicly. But the challenge is that it doesn’t meet that standard of federally approved research.

And that means that in terms of publications and in terms of the medical community’s embrace of that research, there can be limitations. There’s still at the end of the day very few things that carry the gold standard weight of a federally approved medical research project. And as hard as the states try, they can’t reach that status.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Well, we’ll keep an eye on it. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today, John.

JOHN HUDAK: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: John Hudak is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and author of the forthcoming book Marijuana– A Short History.

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