Pipe Dream?

Rick Doblin has a prescription for fixing NIDA's ailing medical-marijuana program: establish an alternative.

This Web Exclusive is offered as a supplement to Fast Company's February 2004 article "The Cannabis Conundrum."

At a secret location in southeastern England, the British biotech GW Pharmaceuticals has built what might well be the most high-tech pot palace on the planet. Surrounded by electrified razor wire and video cameras, the one-acre greenhouse contains more than 15,000 pharmaceutical-grade marijuana plants, which GW uses for research and for the production of cannabis-based medicines. Since 1998, when British regulators granted GW a license to cultivate marijuana, the company has harvested more than 300,000 plants.

The United States has its own version of a marijuana-growing facility. Administered by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it is the country's only legal source of marijuana for medical research. The U.S. pot farm, managed under contract at the University of Mississippi, is also ringed by high-tech surveillance equipment. But here, the similarity with GW ends.

As its name would imply, the National Institute on Drug Abuse is concerned more with marijuana's supposed dangers than its potential benefits. Thus, it is not exactly inclined to produce GW-like quantities of' home-grown: NIDA distributes its material to just a handful of clinical programs and exactly seven patients, the sole survivors of the several dozen patients who were legally allowed to use medical marijuana under the government's "compassionate use" investigational new drug program. And the quality of NIDA's pot? Based on the photographic evidence, NIDA's concoction of seeds, stems, and leaves more closely resembles dried cat brier than cannabis.

Ethan Russo, a physician specializing in child neurology and a senior scientific advisor to GW, received 100 grams of NIDA marijuana in 1997. He pronounced it "relatively impotent" and "unsuitable to be smoked by patients for medical indications." Concludes Russo, in a letter to Frank Sapienza, a just-retired officer in the DEA's drug and chemical evaluation unit: "Unfortunately, the material was of such poor quality, we did not deem it to be representative of true medical cannabis, and have not yet ascertained an appropriate set of biochemical experiments for which to utilize it."

Rick Doblin argues that the federal government is using NIDA to stymie research on medical marijuana by producing substandard plants for scientific study and by making it difficult or impossible for FDA researchers to obtain the drug. Doblin believes he has a prescription for fixing NIDA's ailing medical-marijuana program: establish an alternative.

Doblin, who holds a Harvard Ph.D. in public policy, is the president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit pharmaceutical company. Like many of the pioneers in the Aboveground Marijuana Economy, he is driven, opinionated, and simultaneously idealistic and street smart. His big goal is to build and sponsor a thriving medical-marijuana research community in this country, which would one day lead the federal Food and Drug Administration to approve marijuana-based prescription medicines. To that end, Doblin wants to establish a cannabis-growing facility at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Such an operation would produce high-quality, genetically consistent cannabis that would meet researchers' specifications; it would also provide a privately funded alternative to NIDA. The U. Mass.-Amherst operation would be overseen by Lyle Craker, an expert in medicinal-plant sciences who has taught at the campus for the past 20 years.

Doblin argues that pharmaceutical companies will never invest in cannabis-based drug development, so long as NIDA is the sole legal supplier of medical marijuana. No company, he believes, will sponsor cannabis research when it lacks quality control and access to the very product that it would one day hope to market. Thus, Doblin and Craker have been trying for nearly four years to obtain a Drug Enforcement Agency license to establish a legal source of medical marijuana at U. Mass. for privately funded research.

"The government knows that as long as NIDA retains a monopoly on the supply of an inferior marijuana product and arbitrarily provides it to some — but not all — FDA-approved protocols, that it can effectively prevent privately funded marijuana-based drug development from taking place in this country," says Doblin. "Their rhetoric says we need more research; their actions demonstrate they fear what the research will reveal."

You'd be forgiven for thinking that Doblin's quest is acutely quixotic, given the Bush Administration's position on medical marijuana. Andrea Barthwell, a deputy director in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and President Bush's point person on medical marijuana, says that cannabis medicines aren't compatible with modern science. She declined to comment on Craker's DEA application. But she asserted that marijuana "is a crude plant product that most definitely is not a medicine."

Doblin counters that he is just taking the federal government at its word. In 1999, the Institute of Medicine, working at the behest of the White House drug czar's office, issued a lengthy report that assessed the scientific evidence concerning potential medical uses of marijuana. It's preeminent recommendation: "Research should continue into the physiological effects of synthetic and plant-derived cannabinoids."

Doblin asserts that that is exactly what he is trying to do: further the research into medical marijuana, "which is the federal government's stated policy." He has won an impressive array of allies, including both of Massachusetts's U.S. senators, Edward Kennedy and John Kerry. In a letter to DEA chief Karen Tandy, Kennedy and Kerry asserted that the NIDA facility at the University of Mississippi "has an unjustifiable monopoly on the production of marijuana for legitimate medical and research purposes in the United States. The current lack of competition...jeopardizes important research into the therapeutic effects of marijuana for patients undergoing chemotherapy or suffering from AIDS, glaucoma, or other diseases."

Doblin and Craker are still awaiting word from the DEA on their application's status. But Doblin, citing the public's growing acceptance of medical marijuana, likes their chances. "It's in the DEA's best interest to put this issue behind them, and let us proceed with the research," he says. "Then the ball would be in our court, and we would have to prove that marijuana is as good a medicine as we think it is."

For more information on the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, visit the organization's Web site.

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