Wanted: Someone to grow marijuana for the federal government. Benefits: A contract likely worth millions and the chance to enable medical research. Requirements: Ability to deal with the costs and regulations that come with growing an illegal drug for the federal government.
For more than four decades, the University of Mississippi has had an exclusive license with the government to grow marijuana for federally sanctioned research. But this month, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced it would grant permission to other growers — an effort, it said, to expand the supply and variety of marijuana available for research.
So has the change set off a gold rush to grow the green? Not exactly.
STAT contacted almost a dozen agricultural schools, including those with industrial hemp programs, to gauge their eagerness to grow marijuana for the government.
Not interested, said Cornell University, the University of Kentucky, and Virginia Tech. Ditto, said Michigan State University, the University of Vermont, and Western Kentucky University.
No plans, said University of California, Davis, and University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Same with Colorado State University, Oregon State University, and Purdue University.
“We are very boring that way,” Janna Beckerman, a plant pathologist who researches hemp at Purdue, wrote in an email.
Some interested groups could be keeping their plans under wraps. And other possible candidates may be trying to get a better sense of what the DEA wants. But any reluctance might stem from more than being boring.
To register with the agency, applicants will need to show that they will have security measures in place to protect the marijuana and be willing to comply with a host of other requirements. And depending on the scale of the operation, prospective growers will likely have to make significant investments to get it up and running.
Bob Morgan, an attorney at Much Shelist who formerly led the Illinois medical marijuana program, said that facilities in states that have strict regulations on medical marijuana growers are probably looking at multimillion-dollar expenditures for construction alone.
“I think everybody is just thinking about how to approach this,” said Dr. Igor Grant, director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego. “What will it really take to get one of these DEA licenses?”
Grant said he would consider talking with other universities and agencies in California to see if it was worth the effort to get a cultivation operation in the state, but beyond that had not heard of groups intending to apply.
One researcher in the running is Lyle Craker, who studies medicinal plants at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and has tried in the past to get approval to grow marijuana. He did not reply to an email requesting comment, but a spokesman for a group called the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies — which sponsors related research — said it is supporting Craker’s efforts to get a license, as it has in the past.
Other possible applicants include independent growers who operate in states where medical and recreational marijuana is legal. Some cultivators have an expertise in running a large-scale marijuana facility — with state-of-the-art practices and security measures and experience dealing with state regulators — that in theory might appeal to federal authorities.
But the fact is, their existence contravenes federal law.
In a memo announcing the policy change, acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg said that it would consider whether applicants have “engaged in illegal activity involving controlled substances … regardless of whether such activity is permissible under state law.” While that doesn’t disqualify current cultivators, policy experts and people in the industry say the DEA won’t look highly upon them.
“They made it very clear that if you have been in violation of the [Controlled Substances Act], that would be weighted heavily against you,” said Rachel Gillette, an attorney at Greenspoon Marder in Colorado who represents marijuana businesses.
That might not stop people from trying, though.
Charlie Bachtell is the CEO and founder of Cresco Labs, which grows medical marijuana at three sites in Illinois. Bachtell said he is considering applying to the DEA because he wants to support research that could show marijuana has medical benefits.
“The future of this industry definitely starts with research,” Bachtell said. “The opportunity to help progress the acceptance, the elevation, and the professionalism of the medical cannabis industry really starts with research.”
The DEA’s policy change also opened the door to a new group of candidates: drug makers. While the Mississippi marijuana is funneled to academic research, Rosenberg wrote that marijuana can now be grown “for strictly commercial endeavors … aimed at drug product development.”
GW Pharmaceuticals, a company that is developing a drug for epilepsy from a component of marijuana called cannabidiol, said it has not made a decision about a growing facility in the United States, but remained vague enough to suggest possible interest. The company makes the drug, Epidiolex, in the United Kingdom, where it is based.
“We are exploring additional growing facilities in places around the world,” the company said in a statement.
The DEA’s application process is open, but the agency has set no deadline to select growers. The agency has indicated it wants just enough marijuana to be produced so research demands are met, but not more than that.
“It could be that two years from now, we still only have one registrant,” said Alex Kreit, an expert on marijuana law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law.
Even if cultivators gets licenses, they will confront a chicken-and-egg quandary: If they get special approval to grow marijuana, where do they get the supply they need to start it?
They could obtain marijuana from the University of Mississippi, but that would defeat the purpose of trying to expand the genetic variety of plants available. Or they could get seeds and plants from another country, such as Canada or Israel, with the proper permits.
An existing grower could also surrender some marijuana to law enforcement, which could then hand it over to a newly registered grower.
For its part, a spokesman wrote in an email that that the DEA “would require manufacturers to obtain their seeds from a lawful source, and the DEA would assist the new manufacturers in this regard.”