Mar 6 3:00 PM

Meet the one man allowed to legally grow weed for US researchers

Legal recreational marijuana use is now in full swing in both Colorado and Washington, and much of the media attention has focused on the idea that social acceptance of pot in America is steadily growing.

A recent New York Times/CBS Poll shows that 51 percent of Americans believe marijuana should be legal. Colorado is reaping massive tax revenue from recreational retailers, now estimated at $134 million for the next fiscal year. In California, Girl Scouts cookie sellers are setting up shop outside at least one medical marijuana dispensary, and the first ads for medical pot started airing in New Jersey and Chicago this week.

But in 29 states, even the most clear-cut compassionate use of cannabis to treat health conditions is still prohibited.

Medical marijuana is still illegal in 29 states.
(TechKnow/Al Jazeera America)

One major roadblock is that despite more than 20,000 studies dealing with both marijuana plants and cannabinoids — compounds made from concentrations of the cannabis plant — federal research into the drug’s use to treat disease (or side effects from common therapies, such as chemotherapy) is still limited by U.S. law that strictly controls access to the plants, even for clinical trials. Without clinical trials and top-notch scientific data, it’s difficult for advocates to press for expanded access.

In this week’s “TechKnow,” contributor Crystal Dilworth travels to Colorado, where she meets the Stanley brothers, a family of medical marijuana growers who believe Charlotte’s Web — a cannabis oil with low levels of THC and high levels of a cannabinoid called CBD — can stop seizures in kids with epilepsy. The show also goes inside the first clinical trial of a pure CBD compound manufactured in a lab — similar to, but not the same as Charlotte’s Web, which is grown and refined in a more organic method.

“We do have some hurdles to overcome,” says Joel Stanley, whose dispensary makes Charlotte’s Web. “Typically the FDA likes to see a single-compound model. They don't want to see a new drug come from a medical marijuana program that's federally illegal. So we're going into clinical trials likely in Canada and in Uruguay, and we're hoping to get through the FDA hurdles.”

Only one facility in the U.S. is permitted to grow pot for federally approved studies: the University of Mississippi. Since 1968, any pot-based product going through the proper FDA process in accordance with the the National Institutes of Health has come from Ole Miss and its School of Pharmacy research professor Mahmoud ElSohly.

ElSohly has been involved in the program at Ole Miss since 1976 and has been the head of the program since 1981. He said that through all these years working with the government, most researchers have been interested in testing plants with a high THC variety — until the past year or two, when after a small spike in media attention on CBD, one researcher, Dr. Donald Abrams from the University of San Francisco, approached the government about testing a plant that is equal in THC and CBD components. (The CBD clinical trials shown in “TechKnow” use plants grown in the United Kingdom that are imported under a special arrangement with the DEA.) By the end of the summer, he plans to have a bigger supply of plants that are low in THC and high in CBD compounds and “everything in between.”

Future research and clinical trials will be crucial in validating CBD as a legitimate medical treatment.
(TechKnow/Al Jazeera America)

According to ElSohly, some plants grown and sold as medical marijuana now may not meet FDA standards that apply to his own crop, but they may also not be unique to the dispensaries that are selling them. For example, Charlotte’s Web may turn out to have the same basic pharmacology as plants grown at Ole Miss despite the differing geographical and proprietary components.

Charlotte's Web cannot be sold to families living outside of Colorado until it goes through the federal process. ElSohly says testing plants being grown in his lab versus the compounds in the plants grown in Colorado could yield similar results. “(The plants from my lab) may not have the identical profiles with the materials produced in Colorado, but I can almost guarantee the pharmacology would not be different because the major components of the plant are going to be the same,” he said.


To learn more about CBD and medical marijuana, watch "TechKnow," Sunday 7:30ET/4:30PT. 



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