Don’t Tread On My Weed
Taking a look at the popularity of 420 festivals this year alone, it’s safe to say that the cannabis craze has taken over America. As a result, more and more people are trying to educate themselves about the plant. But anyone who starts digging into cannabis research is going to walk away with their head spinning. What one study says, another one contradicts, making it hard to know the truth about cannabis’s effects on health. But don’t blame the researchers. The problem is with the federally grown weed that’s ruining their research.
The problem with federally grown weed stems from the strict limitations the DEA puts on any research involving cannabis. The federal prohibition on weed has held up, delayed, or otherwise stymied countless studies. But that’s not the whole story.
On top of the strict rules governing cannabis research, when the DEA actually does approve a study, researchers are required to use Uncle Sam’s stash. And that’s a problem because the quality of federally grown weed is atrocious.
Here are all the ways federally grown weed is ruining research.
1. Federally Grown Weed Isn’t Potent Enough
When you walk into a dispensary to purchase medical or recreational marijuana, you expect to walk out with quality cannabis buds covered in a crystal coat of trichomes. And you expect the packaging to tell you the name of the strain, its strength, and its cannabinoid profile.
Recreational users usually want to buy strains with high THC content, since THC is the psychoactive cannabinoid that gets you high. The most popular strains typically offer somewhere between 15 percent and 30 percent THC, and can go even higher.
Medical users typically desire strains with high CBD content, since CBD is non-psychoactive. Additionally, studies show it to be the most important cannabinoid for producing medicinal and therapeutic effects. Some CBD-only strains like Charlotte’s Web or Remedy can top 20 percent CBD.
So if that’s what recreational users and medical patients are going to be using, that’s what researchers should be studying, right? Too bad the federally grown weed that researchers have to use barely breaks the 10 percent mark in THC content, and usually has even less CBD.
As researchers Christoper Ingraham and Tauhid Chappell told the Washington Post, the sample of federally grown weed their team received tested 5 percent lower in THC than the government thought. They were expecting a sample that contained 13 percent THC. That’s still well below typical commercial weed on offer in legal states. But the sample turned out to really contain just 8 percent.
You’re not going to get reliable research using samples with such inferior quality.
2. Federally Grown Weed Contains Heavy Metals Like Lead
Stoner doom metal: awesome. Heavy metals in your weed: lame. But sure enough, federally grown weed has tested positive for toxic heavy metals. There are, of course, federal health regulations that limit the amount of lead that can be present in agricultural products. But pesticide use can contribute to higher levels than normal.
Researchers with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in Chicago identified lead in the samples obtained from the government. While the trace levels of metals were at levels that we, for the most part, consider non-hazardous, it’s likely that the metals skewed the results of the research.
3. Federally Grown Weed Often Contains Mold
As anyone who has stored or grown weed before will tell you, mold is the number one killer of good bud. So much so, in fact, that mold spores are the number one sign that your stash is trash. As documented by PBS, Arizona primary care physician Sue Sisley discovered mold in her samples of federally grown weed. She had requested the cannabis in order to study the drug as a treatment for chronic PTSD.
And it wasn’t just that the buds had mold on them. In fact, there were no buds at all. When Sisley unwrapped the package, she found a substance that looked more like green powder than cannabis flowers. Sisley’s sample also tested at a lower potency than she had requested from NIDA.
And mold is a serious problem for cannabis quality. Mold, along with yeast, showed up in about 7 percent of the samples obtained from Colorado last year. In other words, 7 percent of the weed tested didn’t pass “microbial” standards for consumption. And that’s weed that the state sells commercially. Imagine how much moldy, yeast-contaminated weed is ruining cannabis research.
4. Federally Grown Weed All Comes from One Farm
Part of the issue with the consistent inconsistency and poor quality of federally grown weed is that it all comes from one farm. And it’s cannabis grown on this government-funded farm that is the only weed permitted in officially approved studies.
Uncle Sam’s own grow is located on the campus of the University of Mississippi. The 12-acre pot farm here is literally the only federally legal grow operation in the entire country. All of the farms producing weed for legal consumption in places like Colorado and Oregon are technically illegal under federal law.
The federal government has a contract with the university to grow upwards of 30,000 cannabis plant for a little under $70 million. Each year, the growers harvest the amount of cannabis researchers demand, storing it until their studies are approved.
But the cannabis grown on Ole Miss’s farm is all of the same strain, and consistently produces sub-par cannabis. And to produce reliable research on cannabis and health, scientists need to conduct trials with a variety of strains, not a “mono-crop.”
Furthermore, different climates and growing environments produce dramatically different plants. Limiting researchers to cannabis from just one plot of land is ruining their research into the efficacy of different plants and grow methods.
5. Federally Grown Weed Is Frozen, Not Fresh
When you purchase commercial cannabis, you’re buying a product that growers have freshly harvested and recently cured. The freshest cannabis is the best to consume. But it’s also the best for research, because of the plant’s many compounds are intact and interactive.
Time and storage degrade the terpenes, trichomes, and cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. Researchers need to be able to study the complex interaction of these compounds, in order to determine how marijuana impacts our minds and bodies.
But when researchers request federally grown weed, they’re not going to receive freshly trimmed buds. Instead, they’re going to get a package of powdery cannabis that has been frozen for months or more. The researchers themselves will have to keep the cannabis frozen until they need to use it. Thaw it too early, and mold and yeast quickly become an issue.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) insists that drying and freezing don’t compromise the plant compounds researchers want to study, like THC. But given the stark differences in quality between commercial weed and federally grown weed, and how frequently tests show the latter is less potent than NIDA claims, it’s hard to accept the claim that freezing does nothing to harm quality.
6. Federally Grown Weed Is Full of Seeds and Stems
Apparently, Uncle Sam — or the NIDA-approved growers at Ole Miss — have never heard Afroman’s song “Colt 45.” Because if they had, they’d know that if you’re going to “roll, roll, roll your joint,” you’ve got to “pick out the seeds and stems”!
From the looks of it, the government’s own weed farmers don’t even understand the difference between shake and trim. Recreational and medical consumers who smoke weed smoke the flowers of the plant, not its stems and leaves. Usually, people reserve the trimmings for processing in large batches to make edible oils and fats.
But the packages of federally grown weed that show up at laboratories are full of stems, leaves, and seeds. The parts of the plant that smokers consider useless. Stems have virtually none of the cannabinoids that produce the therapeutic effects of cannabis. Leaves do but in smaller quantities. So using stems and leaves in cannabis studies is clearly going to ruin the research.
Researchers Are Demanding Better Weed
There are lots of roadblocks to conducting large-scale clinical trials of cannabis. And this is unfortunate because that’s exactly the knowledge that American consumers and policymakers needs. The federal prohibition on researching cannabis is loosening slightly, but not far enough.
And even if the DEA approves more studies, the federally grown weed cannabis researchers have to use makes their studies inconsistent and largely pointless. Other growers have submitted applications to the DEA to become approved suppliers of cannabis for research. But so far, the government has denied all of them.
In response, researchers are continuing to demand better weed from the federal government. However, the fact that their demands have not been met points to a larger issue. The mission of the National Institute on Drug Abuse is to decrease the use of the plant. And that conflicts with the mission of cannabis researchers who want to study the medicinal properties of the plant.