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Interest in studying marijuana grows amid push for legalization

| Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015, 10:51 p.m.
University of Pittsburgh health researcher Christina Mair of Hampton used a National Institutes of Health grant to examine hospital data on marijuana abuse.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
University of Pittsburgh health researcher Christina Mair of Hampton used a National Institutes of Health grant to examine hospital data on marijuana abuse.
Scientists at the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy yielded 600 kilograms of marijuana in their 2014 harvest, the first in seven years. The school contracts with the National Institute on Drug Abuse to grow marijuana for federal research purposes.
University of Mississippi Communications
Scientists at the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy yielded 600 kilograms of marijuana in their 2014 harvest, the first in seven years. The school contracts with the National Institute on Drug Abuse to grow marijuana for federal research purposes.
Dr. Suman Chandra inspects marijuana plants growing in the University of Mississippi's medicinal gardens. The plants are used for research under a contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
University of Mississippi Communications
Dr. Suman Chandra inspects marijuana plants growing in the University of Mississippi's medicinal gardens. The plants are used for research under a contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
University of Pittsburgh health researcher Christina Mair of Hampton used a National Institutes of Health grant to examine hospital data on marijuana abuse.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
University of Pittsburgh health researcher Christina Mair of Hampton used a National Institutes of Health grant to examine hospital data on marijuana abuse.

Late last year, researchers at the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy harvested the first federally grown marijuana plants since 2007.

Stocks were thin and demand was up.

“It is a priority of ours. It has been for the last two years, at least,” said Susan Weiss, director of the division of extramural research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which contracts with the lab.

Marijuana research is in demand as more states legalize — or consider legalizing — some form of the substance.

It's time for new strains, Weiss said.

“There are so many states that have made all these changes, and we are wanting to find out as much as possible,” she said.

Pennsylvania lawmakers are discussing whether to allow legalization for medical purposes, and voters in Ohio this week will weigh in on a medical and recreational legalization proposal.

“From our perspective, all these changes are happening very quickly,” Weiss said, “and at the very least, we would like to have a better understanding of what this means in terms of various public health outcomes — both good and bad.”

The 12-acre outdoor farm and indoor laboratory yielded about 600 kilograms of marijuana to be used by researchers nationwide who have explicit federal approval to test cannabis and its effects.

The plant is illegal to possess under federal law, but that has not precluded federally funded research efforts from blossoming. One funding opportunity includes $3 million for six to 10 studies on public health effects of marijuana. Others examine whether cannabis can be used instead of opiates for pain treatment.

Overall, the National Institute on Drug Abuse's budget for marijuana research was about $63 million last year.

The agency's “marijuana farm contract” with Ole Miss will cost an anticipated $1.5 million this year, after competitive bidding for a new five-year contract. The school has held the contract since the 1960s.

The latest harvest included new strains with varying amounts of cannabidiol, a marijuana compound used to treat epilepsy.

“We've really expanded the diversity of the cannabis that's available,” Weiss said.

Not all research looks at just the drug. As legalization has become more widespread, researchers have worked to examine marijuana's social outcomes.

At the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, Christina Mair used a National Institutes of Health grant to examine hospital data on marijuana abuse. Her team found correlations between marijuana abuse being listed in medical records and an area having dispensaries.

Mair has spent about a decade in public health research, but said no study has garnered more phone calls or interview requests than her latest effort.

“People are interested,” she said. “They want the information, and they want it now.”

Some call for more research to be done in conjunction with loosening federal standards. A Brookings Institute report in October condemned the federal government for holding back research by classifying marijuana as a Schedule I drug, or one that has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration's ranking system for controlled substances. Only researchers with a Schedule I license can use the marijuana grown at Ole Miss.

“It's time to stop letting outdated policy prevent the scientific community from advancing knowledge and ensuring that patients and practitioners understand the benefits and risks of medical marijuana,” the Brookings report concluded.

Weiss said the Schedule I classification does not preclude research, but the debate is ongoing.

“There's a lot of discussion behind the scenes and out in public in Congress about this,” she said.

The Pennsylvania Medical Society “absolutely” supports rescheduling, said Dr. Martin Trichtinger, a Montgomery County physician who is the speaker for the organization's House of Delegates. Last weekend, the organization issued a policy position that calls for more research on marijuana's effects. It still opposes the medical marijuana legalization bill the state Senate passed this year.

“Having any kind of credible evidence and credible study would be immensely valuable,” Trichtinger said.

The field of marijuana research shows signs of formalizing within the scientific community. The American Chemical Society this year established a subdivision for scientists called the Cannabis Chemistry Committee. Helping to head the effort is Jahan Marcu, a Philadelphia-based researcher who is a senior scientist for Americans for Safe Access.

The committee aims to connect scientists so they can share their research and help educate the general public, he said. Still, the number of articles published in peer-reviewed journals, which is the standard for groups such as the Pennsylvania Medical Society, remains stagnant, Marcu said.

“I think over the next several years, when labs are running validated studies, we will see the cannabis industry start to do more and more of its own research,” he said.

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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