Take a look at the photo above. That’s what most marijuana consumers picture when they think “marijuana” — chunks of pungent green plant material coated in sticky, crystallized THC-rich resin.
But if you’re a researcher looking to work with marijuana — to say, investigate how it impairs people, or how it could help people suffering from certain ailments — you don’t have access to the weed that everyone else is using. Since the late 1960s the federal government has mandated that all marijuana used in research has to come through the federal government.
To investigate the real-world effects of marijuana, however, researchers need a product that looks and feels like the real thing. And they’re increasingly frustrated with government weed that is something else entirely.
Don’t take their word for it. The photo below shows a sample of federal marijuana distributed to Sue Sisley, a researcher who just embarked on a first-of-its-kind clinical trial to test the efficacy of medical marijuana for military veterans suffering from PTSD.
Here they are side by side:
A quick glance confirms it looks nothing like the commercial marijuana depicted above. While the real stuff is chunky and dark green, the government weed is stringy and light in color. It appears to be full of stems, which most consumers don’t smoke. “It doesn’t resemble cannabis. It doesn’t smell like cannabis,” Sisley told PBS NewsHour last week.
Jake Browne, a cannabis critic for the Denver Post’s Cannabist marijuana news site, agrees. “That is, flat out, not a usable form of cannabis,” he said. Browne should know: He’s reviewed dozens of strains professionally and is running a sophisticated marijuana growing competition called the Grow-Off.
“In two decades of smoking weed, I’ve never seen anything that looks like that,” Browne said. “People typically smoke the flower of the plant, but here you can clearly see stems and leaves in there as well, parts that should be discarded. Inhaling that would be like eating an apple, including the seeds inside it and the branch it grew on.”
It’s unclear if this is an exceptionally bad batch, but there’s reason to strongly suspect it’s typical of what most researchers are given.
All federal marijuana is grown at a single facility at the University of Mississippi, overseen by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Last summer the DEA formally took steps to allow other entities to supply marijuana for research purposes. So far, none have been approved.
The problems with the Mississippi weed go well beyond aesthetics.
For instance, the pot grown there maxes out, potency-wise, at about 13 percent THC (the main chemical that gets you high). And that might be an overstatement — Sisley’s own testing found that one of NIDA’s strains purported to be 13 percent THC was actually closer to 8 percent.
By comparison, the typical commercial weed available in Colorado is at about 19 percent THC, according to a laboratory that tests commercial marijuana in the state. And that’s just the average — some of the higher-end strains are pushing 30 percent THC or more.