As you know, marijuana is illegal on a federal level. This means that in theory, you could be arrested for selling or possessing weed even in a state like California, where getting high is about as socially accepted as drinking a Coors Light on a Saturday afternoon.
That is, at least, if folks like Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions had their way.
| “Would weed-friendly states like Colorado and California exist if folks like Jeff Sessions had their way?”
Fortunately, for now at least, the government is NOT interfering with state’s rights. However, it is quite obvious that the government barely tolerates the herb.
Even so, it’s true that the feds do grow marijuana for research purposes, and American pharmacologist Mahmoud ElSohly has the enviable task of overseeing the operation — and supplying the weed.
The Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences professor was born in Egypt and received his B.S. and M.S. from Cairo University, later moving to the United States where he received a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. In 1976, he started working at the University of Mississippi, where he soon thereafter became the head of one of the country’s only government-led marijuana growing operations.
In this article, we present the man who, in so many words, is technically responsible for selling weed to the federal government.
What’s Going on in Mississippi?
In many ways, the state of Mississippi is a curious place for the DEA’s only authorized grower of marijuana to be located. It has among the strictest anti-weed laws in the country, and it is not legal here for recreational or medicinal use. While possession of 30 grams or less is classified as a misdemeanor (on the first three occasions), being caught with 31-200 grams is a felony with a minimum prison term of one year.
Moreover, you can get up to 30 years in jail in Mississippi for possessing 5 kg or more, and sale of any amount is a felony with a minimum sentence of three years.
Fortunately, Mahmoud ElSohly doesn’t have to worry about being punished, as he and his team are the only people in Mississippi legally allowed to grow marijuana.
| “ElSohly is a man who, in so many words, is responsible for selling weed to the federal government…”
ElSohly has been the leader of the program since 1980, and during the intervening years, the legal landscape has changed dramatically. Today, the program develops strains that are both high (relatively speaking) in THC and CBD, in order to test out its efficacy on medical conditions.
ElSohly has the benefit of working in a huge 12-acre facility capable of growing thousands of kilograms of weed annually, but they typically don’t grow anywhere near that amount. For instance, in 2014, the facility grew up to 800 kilos and didn’t grow anything else for two years because they already had enough for the limited amount of money granted to cannabis research.
DID YOU KNOW: The University of Mississippi has been the only federally-authorized supplier of weed since 1968?
In 2014, the government awarded the University of Mississippi a contract worth almost $69 million to continue its research into cannabis; further indication that the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) prefers ‘Ole Miss,’ which has been the only federal supplier of weed since 1968.
The grant is part of a new plan to expand growth, with the expectation of producing up to 30,000 plants on their 12-acre facility. The DEA even announced its plans to hire more cultivators back in 2016, with the reason being to meet the increased demand of researchers as study of marijuana escalates.
Despite the value of the contract, however, the government only purchases enough cannabis to meet research demand. The contract was widely criticized as a further example of a lucrative monopoly for Ole Miss.
What Does ElSohly Think About the Program — and the Existing Marijuana Landscape?
Unsurprisingly, ElSohly backs a passionate defense of his program at Ole Miss. When asked to advise anyone seeking to grow weed for the government, ElSohly snapped that he wouldn’t want to give any because he would be perceived as the enemy. He is angry that some people believe things would be better if the University of Mississippi weren’t in the picture.
According to ElSohly, his program is not a monopoly at all. In fact, every five years the government contract with NIDA is re-advertised, which means there are open bids in a competitive marketplace. He says the only reason they keep winning the bids is because Ole Miss is simply the best place to conduct the research.
| “Every five years, the government contract is re-advertised, meaning open bids become available for potential cannabis suppliers to the federal government…”
Despite his depth of research, or perhaps due to it, ElSohly believes that marijuana is not a good option for medical patients when self-dosed. His objection is due to the lack of clearly defined dose, a method of use, chemical profile, or medical condition it should be used for. The pharmacologist does, however, believe that cannabinoids such as THC and CBD have therapeutic activity that should be studied.
The Problem with Federally Grown Marijuana
In the early 1980s, ElSohly’s team was producing weed with a THC content of only 3-4%. It was in high demand at the time because it was close to what was available on the streets. Later on, they began to grow strains with a THC content of up to 8%. In clinical trials, it seemed as if this new marijuana was too strong, because patients couldn’t handle it.
In the end, they decided to drop the potency to 6%. Overall, the strongest cannabis grown at the University of Mississippi is just 13%.
| “In the early 1980s, ElSohly’s team was producing weed for the government with a THC content of only 3% — roughly 80% less potent than today’s weed.”
In fact, this is one of the major issues with federally grown weed. Back in the 1980s, it was similar to what people were actually using but fast forward to today, and the landscape has changed beyond recognition. These days, weed with 6% THC would be classified as a mild medicinal strain at best. Even its strongest marijuana with 13% THC would barely make a dent in an experienced user.
In fact, testing of NIDA’s cannabis revealed that its ‘top strength’ herb was closer to 8% THC. In contrast, typical commercial weed available in states such as California and Colorado have an average of almost 20% THC! And there are now top shelf strains with easily over 30% THC. In other words, using federal marijuana to test the herb is a bit like using Coors Light to test the effects of vodka.
| “In other words, using federal marijuana to research herb is a bit like using Coors Light to test the effects of vodka…”
To be clear, NIDA’s herb is fine if you want to perform academic research such as a study on how cannabis impacts the body in a lab setting. However, it is practically useless when trying to analyze how it affects people in the real world. It is also worthless when attempting to run highly controlled medical experiments and clinical trials. And believe it or not, federal weed is often not tested for common contaminants such mold.
Then, there is the small matter of how NIDA’s marijuana looks, and it is more than a case of bad aesthetics. Real weed consists of chunks of green, pungent plant material laden with glorious THC-filled resin, while federal weed is light and stringy; it actually looks like freshly mowed grass that has been discarded from a lawnmower!
It appears to be filled with stems and leaves, which most recreational users would refuse to pay for if a dispensary tried to sell to them. In fact, it doesn’t look, smell, or feel like the real thing, and it most certainly doesn’t offer the same effects.
Final Thoughts on Federally Grown Weed
We certainly have nothing against ElSohly – he is a man doing a job to the best of his abilities with the materials he has been given. It is not his fault that the federal government is unwilling to allow the University of Mississippi team to grow real marijuana. ElSohly has been working on the project for over 40 years, and it is clear that he is only doing as he is told.
The real issue is the federal government’s attitude towards marijuana, which clearly hasn’t changed much in the last 40+ years. While the cannabis that was originally grown at Ole Miss had at least a passing resemblance to what consumers were using, the specimens on display now are likely decades behind the times. If a dealer sold you weed that looked like NIDA cannabis, you would smack them in the face and take your money back!
| “Low-grade marijuana that produces little therapeutic effect in research studies would give the DEA more reason to maintain cannabis as an illicit Schedule I substance.”
The sizeable grant provided by the federal government fails to make up for what is essentially a half-assed approach. Is it deliberate, perhaps?
Probably not, but at the end of the day, low-grade marijuana that produces little therapeutic effect in research studies gives the DEA more reason to maintain cannabis’ status as an illicit Schedule I substance with “no medicinal value.” We certainly hope a sinister scenario like this is not the case, but it’s definitely something worth thinking about.