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A Weed Monopoly: The Federal Government Has Been Growing Cannabis For Over Half A CenturyFebruary 6, 2019
It doesn’t look like cannabis. It doesn’t even smell like cannabis. And when you smoke it, it barely provides you with any discernible level of stoniness.
This week we’re talking about federally-grown weed. It’s real, and, by most accounts, it’s terrible.
Wait, The Government Grows Cannabis?!
The federal government has been growing cannabis since 1968. Researchers are required to use federally-grown cannabis for any clinical trial or research project that involves cannabis and its effects. Even if researchers live and work in a state that allows medical or adult-use recreational cannabis, they can’t use dispensary cannabis, and they’re required by law to apply for samples through the National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
The federal government and NIDA have been working with the University of Mississippi to grow cannabis for research and clinical trials on a twelve-acre farm, even while cannabis remains illegal at the federal level.
Researchers aren’t the only ones forced to rely on the feds for cannabis. The government also gives federally-grown cannabis to a handful of medical patients.
You read that right.
Since 1976, the federal government has been quietly running a program that distributes free cannabis to a handful of people with qualifying debilitating medical conditions. The program stopped accepting new applicants in 1992, but they continue to deliver cannabis to the people who are still alive and enrolled—currently down to just three patients. Those patients are given a half pound of cannabis at a time, presented in a metal tin that contains approximately 300 pre-rolled joints. That cannabis is also grown through the University of Mississippi’s cannabis program, but recipients aren’t thrilled about their free government cannabis .
What's so bad about federally-grown weed?
Contrary to the “herban legends” you may have heard about government cannabis with superior genetics, like the mythical origins of the G-13 strain, federally-grown weed is barely recognizable as cannabis to most experienced consumers. Depending on the sample, it may look like dried-out hay, a mess of stems and leaves, or even a greenish-tinted sample of dry matcha powder. The only thing worse than the appearance of this cannabis may be its effects.
Cannabis grown by the government maxes out at approximately 13% THC—about half as potent as the clean, high-THC cannabis that you’d find at your local medical or adult-use dispensary. And not all of the government’s stash is that potent; on average, weed from the government’s University of Mississippi farm averages around 5% THC and 6% CBD.
Potency isn’t the only issue with federally-grown weed. The federal government currently has no guidelines or testing standards for cannabis quality.
Researchers say that the samples they received from the federal government were frequently contaminated with mold and yeast spores at levels that would not even pass many state-level cannabis requirements. For example, in Colorado, cannabis samples must contain less than 10,000 colony-forming units, or CFUs, of mold or yeast spores per gram. Some samples from the federal government that were independently tested by researchers came back with mold and yeast levels as high as 64,000 CFU/g—more than six times higher than what’s permitted in dispensaries across Colorado. Samples sent by the federal government are also kept frozen, both during and after shipment. In samples that were inadvertently thawed, researchers found yeast and mold levels in excess of ten times the statewide threshold in Colorado, with some samples coming in at a shocking 110,000 CFU/g.
Some samples of federally-grown cannabis were also contaminated with trace levels of lead. All of this remains the norm within the realm of cannabis research, which means we still don’t have an accurate clinical understanding of what cannabis can do (both good and bad) in real-world applications.
In addition to making a poor research subject, federal weed is also bad medicine for those who need it. Elvy Musikka, one of the three remaining federally-recognized patients to receive free cannabis each month, has relied on this medication for decades to treat a debilitating case of glaucoma. In 2012, her tin of cannabis contained what Musikka alleges was hemp, not cannabis. It was rife with stems and seeds, and it did not produce any meaningful medicinal effects. Musikka ended up losing an optic nerve in one eye, which ultimately deprived her of all vision in that eye. She blames the weak, untested government cannabis that she was smoking.
Why this matters for researchers and consumers
The federal government has effectively built a monopoly on the study and clinical use of cannabis. That monopoly is enforced by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) .
Beyond the ethical questions this raises, it’s also had a lasting impact on research. Many researchers have felt that they must specifically tailor their cannabis studies to conform with the samples available from the University of Mississippi program, rather than building studies around real-world conditions that could help actual patients and consumers .
It’s already exceedingly difficult for researchers to get permission from the government to study cannabis. The process takes many months, requires a series of permits or licenses, and includes inspections from both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the DEA. The research facility itself must meet federal guidelines that include limited-access rooms and a secure safe for storage. In 2017, only twenty research facilities in the US were approved for cannabis studies; even researchers and facilities that have previously been approved typically wait up to a year for re-approval.
One researcher in Arizona waited twenty months to receive the samples that were requested for a cannabis study. She requested the highest THC levels the government can provide (13%), but when she had the samples tested for potency, the results came in as low as 8% THC.
The real-world impact of the monopoly on federal cannabis is that patients continue to suffer. Researchers are incapable of studying the effects of cannabis on both patients and recreational consumers because the product they’re studying is nothing like what cannabis enthusiasts actually consume.
In addition to lacking quality and potency controls, it’s also virtually impossible to measure the effects of specific strains or their terpenes. In fact, professional cannabis critics have said that federal weed is essentially “not a usable form of cannabis.”
In response to these growing concerns within the medical community, the government approved a policy change that went into effect in 2016. The new policy opens the door for other entities outside the University of Mississippi to apply for cannabis growing permits in order to supply researchers around the country. As of September 2018, over two dozen individuals or organizations have applied for large-scale cultivation permits. The government accepted the mandatory application fee of $3,047 from each individual or organization . However, to date, no additional permits have been approved, leaving researchers and medical patients like Elvy Musikka with inferior cannabis for the foreseeable future.
Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.