Mahmoud ElSohly oversees acres of marijuana plants in the deep south, a swath of the country the tide of medical marijuana legalization has yet to touch. But he’s not running an illegal operation — he’s a professor of pharmaceutics and head of the marijuana program at the University of Mississippi, which holds an exclusive contract with the government to produce marijuana for research.
Since ElSohly took charge of the program in the early 1980s, the landscape of marijuana research has changed dramatically. To meet the changing demands of researchers, for example, the program has developed specific strains with high levels of THC (a component that gives people a high) and cannabidiol, which has shown promise in antiseizure medications.
But ElSohly is about to see the biggest shakeup to his program in its 40-plus years of existence. Last month, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced it was accepting applications for new cultivators to grow marijuana for research and drug development.
The DEA said the move was motivated by researchers’ need for more supply and a wider variety of strains, as study of the drug picks up. Critics of the policy have also called the existing arrangement a lucrative monopoly for the university; the latest five-year contract is worth as much as $69 million, although the government only buys the amount of marijuana needed to meet research demand.
STAT spoke with ElSohly about the perceptions of his program and what he thinks of the DEA’s policy change. Below are excerpts of that conversation, which have been edited for clarity.
What advice would you give someone who is considering applying to grow marijuana?
I wouldn’t want to give anyone any advice because all these people have looked at me like the enemy or something. I don’t know why, but that’s how it is. So I’m not in a position to give any advice.
What do you mean they’ve looked at you as the enemy?
They keep talking about this is a monopoly, almost like if we weren’t in the picture, things would be better. They have always badmouthed the project, they have always badmouthed NIDA [the National Institute on Drug Abuse]. NIDA doesn’t have this, NIDA doesn’t have that, the University of Mississippi can’t produce enough material — all that stuff that I don’t like to hear because none of it is true.
The contract with NIDA is a competitive contract. And every five years, it gets readvertised and everybody bids for it, just like we do. We’ve been able to keep it here at the University of Mississippi because of the expertise, the know-how, the infrastructure that we have in place.
How much marijuana do you grow? How many square feet of marijuana do you grow?
We don’t grow marijuana every year. The last time we grew was 2014. Why? Because we produced about 600 or 800 kilos in 2014 and we still have that material. But we can produce anywhere from five to 10 kilos to growing thousands of kilos in a year. We have a 12-acre facility. Really, our capability is a heck of a lot more than the demand is.
What do you think about the possible medical value of marijuana?
As far as marijuana that’s self-dosed, I don’t think it’s a good pharmaceutical preparation for patients. There’s really no defined dose, no defined way of use, no defined chemical profile, and no defined medical condition that has been shown that this particular product or that other product are good for.
There are many things in cannabis that potentially have medical value. THC and CBD, to name a few, might have pharmacological activity that could be studied, could be evaluated, could be formulated into very well-defined pharmaceutical preparations.
How has your job changed since the early ’80s?
Number one is actually producing really high potency material. In the early days, I think the maximum potency that we were producing was in the 3 or 4 percent THC range. It was because of demand from researchers and because it was consistent with what was on the streets at the time.
Lately, because some investigators wanted to get material with much higher potency, we started producing material that had 8 percent THC. The investigators administered that to subjects in a clinical trial and the most experienced subjects could not tolerate it. They called and said, “This is too strong.” And I said, “We know that, but that’s what you requested.” And they said, “Well, can we have the maximum potency be 6 percent?” So we made cigarettes at 6 percent. We still have most of that material in the vault.
What do you think of the DEA decision to offer licenses for more growers?
There was some talk that because it was only one supplier, there might not be enough material. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but it doesn’t really matter. The DEA decided they’re going to allow producers to file for registration. That’s fine. I have no problem with that.
Is it going to affect what you do at Ole Miss?
At this point in time, I don’t see any change in what we’re doing. We’re still doing the same thing: making materials available, and we have all kinds of varieties that are available for research. We are meeting the demand and more.
This story was updated to include more details about NIDA’s spending.