If you’ve ever dreamed of getting your hands on the government’s marijuana stash, you may want to adjust your weed fantasies.

Scientists who recently gained access to federal cannabis — as part of a grant to study marijuana as a treatment for military veterans suffering from chronic pain — have been far from impressed, calling the government’s supply moldy, powdery, and chemically impotent.

A sample of marijuana received from the federal facility responsible for growing marijuana for clinical research. (via Dr. Sue Sisley, MAPS)
A sample of marijuana received from the federal facility responsible for growing marijuana for clinical research. (via Dr. Sue Sisley, MAPS)

Dr. Sue Sisley, a primary care physician in Arizona, told PBS NewsHour of the exciting moment she finally received her shipment, and the disappointment that followed:

But minutes later, as she opened the packets to weigh the drug – as required by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration – her enthusiasm turned to dismay. It didn’t look like marijuana. Most of it looked like green talcum powder.

“It didn’t resemble cannabis. It didn’t smell like cannabis,” Sisley says. What’s more, laboratory testing found that some of the samples were contaminated with mold, while others didn’t match the chemical potency Sisley had requested for the study.

Sisley’s independent tests of the product through a Colorado lab found a high level of yeast and mold in several samples, with one sample labeled to have 13% THC having just 8% of the psychoactive compound.

And she can’t turn elsewhere for a better batch.

A 50-Year Pot Monopoly

America’s cannabis research efforts have a dealer problem.

Despite harshly-regulated medical grow operations all over the country, one facility has held a monopoly on federal production for research purposes since 1968. A 12-acre farm at the University of Mississippi –run by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) — is the only operation licensed by the DEA to produce cannabis for research on human subjects.

This raises a number of issues, namely that researchers have nowhere else to turn if batches fail to meet expectations. Or if demand exceeds supply. Or if growing techniques come into question. (NIDA last year admitted to blending strains “to achieve specific cannabinoid concentrations,” complicating researchers’ ability to track effects.)

If there’s one silver lining to this single-source “solution,” it streamlines finger-pointing. Or so you would think. NIDA blames the mold in Sisley’s shipment on the receiving end, claiming the Colorado testing lab left samples in a refrigerator rather than keeping them frozen. But there’s no way to trace the culprit, as NIDA’s product isn’t tested for mold before being shipped.

“Like Eating An Apple, Including The Seeds Inside It And The Branch It Grew On”

In the end, potency may be a bigger issue than contaminants. NIDA’s offerings allegedly top out at 13% THC — less than half the level of potent strains in legal markets. As Sisley told NewsHour: “If you’re trying to do a study where you imitate what patients do in the real world, you can’t.”

The visual evidence is damning:

Comparing commercial medical marijuana (via Oliver Contreras/Washington Post) to marijuana provided by NIDA (via MAPS).
Comparing commercial medical marijuana (via Oliver Contreras/Washington Post) to marijuana provided by NIDA (via MAPS).

Speaking about the above sample from NIDA, Jake Browne of Cannabist didn’t mince words to the Washington Post:

“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.”

Judging the effects of real world marijuana is impossible without an accurate sample. Dr. Sisley and her peers are calculating chainsaw efficacy by running tests on butter knives.

Help On The Way?

Last summer the DEA announced it would license additional research operations, ending the Mississippi facility’s monopoly. But of the 16 organizations that have applied (and paid the $3,000+ fee), none have been approved. The agency is in no rush, saying there is no timeline to take action.

The lack of potency in the Mississippi samples may soon be addressed. In an email to WaPo, NIDA admitted “there has been some emerging interest from the research community for a wider variety of marijuana and marijuana products. … NIDA does plan on growing some additional marijuana this year and harvest some high THC material that will likely be above 13 percent THC.”

As Vox reported last year, the government has hinted at changes to its product and monopoly structure before. Hopefully this time action is taken. Because researchers will never unlock the true potential of cannabis using samples like this:

Pouring a sample of marijuana produced by the federal facility responsible for growing cannabis for clinical research. Courtesy MAPS, Dr. Sue Sisley.
Pouring a sample of marijuana produced by the federal facility responsible for growing cannabis for clinical research. (via Dr. Sue Sisley, MAPS)