Is NIDA marijuana actually hemp?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse supplies marijuana for research studies

In chapter 7 of American Hemp, I theorize that the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s research-grade marijuana is in fact closer to hemp than the marijuana sold at legal dispensaries. A new independent study has proved this theory to be accurate.

Since marijuana has become legal in many different states for recreational and/or medicinal purposes, we now have something legal to compare with the NIDA’s research-grade marijuana, and the photographic evidence is telling us that something is definitely off.

Here’s a comparison from The Washington Postlegal marijuana purchased in Colorado is on the left, while the research-grade marijuana supplied by the government is on the right —

Dr. Sue Sisley received the “marijuana” on the right. She is conducting first FDA approved study to test marijuana’s ability to treat military veterans suffering from severe PTSD (her study is mentioned in American Hemp).

This month, she talked to High Times about the on-going problems she’s facing to conduct a study about marijuana’s medicinal properties in the age of federal marijuana prohibition - you can watch the video here.

The marijuana used for research studies like Dr. Sisley’s is grown at the University of Mississippi. This is the only facility licensed by the DEA in the United States to provide cannabis for federal research purposes.

Since 1999, there have been seventeen independent studies approved to receive the NIDA’s marijuana to conduct research on humans. They’re listed on the NIDA’s website here (Dr. Sisley’s study is #16). The National Institutes of Health also funds a variety of cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinoid research.

Last month, researchers at the University of Northern Colorado reported their findings from testing the genetic make-up of the NIDA’s marijuana. The samples were found to in fact be genetically matched with hemp, not marijuana:

Given NIDA chemotypes were misaligned with commercial Cannabis, we sought to investigate where NIDA’s research grade marijuana falls on the genetic spectrum of Cannabis groups. NIDA research grade marijuana was found to genetically group with Hemp samples along with a small subset of commercial drug-type Cannabis. A majority of commercially available drug-type Cannabis was genetically very distinct from NIDA samples. These results suggest that subjects consuming NIDA research grade marijuana may experience different effects than average consumers.

The study compared NIDA’s weed to hemp (grown on a farm), feral hemp (also known as wild hemp or ditch weed) and commercial-grade marijuana (can be purchased in a dispensary). This is the first study to compare the genetics of NIDA’s marijuana to other sources:

A total of 49 Cannabis samples were used in this research (Supplemental Table 1), including: wild hemp (5), cultivated hemp (4), NIDA strains (2), high CBD drug-type strains (3), and drug types strains (35). Drug-type strains were further subdivided into three commonly used categories: Sativa (11), Hybrid (14), and Indica (10)…The drug-type strains were randomly chosen from a much larger pool of samples.

This is where it gets interesting.

In the above chart, the NIDA samples are represented in blue on the chart, and genetically speaking, they’re “demonstrating a strong association with hemp,” according to the authors of the study.

In the graph below are the results of testing the ancestry of each genetic group. The NIDA samples again had more of an ancestral genetic lineage to wild and cultivated hemp than with any strain of commercial marijuana.

The final genetic test was the most fascinating to me. Researchers took the genetic codes of the samples and tried to link them together. In other words, hemp and marijuana are both cannabis, but hemp is considered a genetic cousin of marijuana—they’re related, they’re family members, but not the same plants by a long shot.

This final genetic test was essentially analyzing the cousins analogy. Were these samples first cousins? Second cousins? Distant cousins? What is the relationship between these samples of wild hemp, farm hemp, commercial marijuana, and NIDA research marijuana? At what “threshold” did their genetics intersect?

  • The genetic link between most of the commercial grade marijuana came first (8.1 threshold - figure A).

  • Then the two NIDA samples linked up to each other at a slightly higher threshold 8.5 (figure B), but still didn’t link up to any other strain. More commercial grade samples also started to link up at this point.

  • When the threshold was raised to 13.7 (figure C), the NIDA samples became connected to the rest of the drug-type samples, but then again so did most of the farm-grade hemp and wild hemp. Interesting to note, the NIDA samples linked to one specific commercial marijuana sample—Eldorado—and that single genetic link was what formed the connection to the other marijuana strains.

  • When the threshold was kicked up to 16.9, all the samples proved to be related, some with greater genetic relationships than others.

    So how did I come up with my theory that NIDA marijuana could be hemp?

    In American Hemp, I reference a 2001 study by Dr. Ethan Russo called the “Chronic Cannabis Use Study.” Dr. Russo examined the four remaining patients of the Compassionate Access IND program, who are receiving cannabis cigarettes from the University of Mississippi on a monthly basis. While his study looked at the long term effects of cannabis use (and indicated there weren’t any adverse effects aside from minor bronchitis), Russo also tested the THC content in their government-issued marijuana cigarettes.

    Unfortunately, the medication prescribed by the NIDA didn’t contain standardized doses of THC, and the highest level of THC was 3.4 percent. While Dr. Russo didn’t report the CBD content, I theorize that there must have been a high CBD content (or at least a relevant percentage of CBD and other cannabinoids) since the THC content was so low. This ratio between a low THC and high CBD would also indicate that the medical marijuana they were receiving could be genetically closer to hemp than to the commercial grade quality we have in dispensaries. This of course goes against what the NIDA claims about the quality of their weed.

    According to the NIDA, research grade marijuana can be provided at different strengths of THC and CBD, but when Dr. Sisley tested one of the strains the NIDA provided—which was allegedly 13 percent THC—she found the THC content to be closer to 8 percent.

    On the agency’s website, the “very high THC varieties” available to researchers in bulk are at a minimum strength of 10 percent THC, but they max out around 13 percent. In today’s commercial marijuana market, 13 percent THC isn’t considered potent pot. Back in 2008, sure. The NIDA claims the average percentage of THC in marijuana was 8.5 at that time, but today’s independent testing has shown that THC levels can range between 19 and 30 percent in Colorado. Just to further address how much times have changed, in 2015, a particular Denver grower was able to breed a strain that consistently tests at 33 percent THC, so needless to say, maxing out at 13 percent THC for research grade marijuana puts scientists at a disadvantage if they’re attempting to apply their lab results to any basis of reality.

There’s about 18 years between the University of Northern Colorado study and Dr. Russo’s research, so it isn’t a stretch to suggest that at least some of NIDA’s genetic strains of marijuana could very well have been hemp all along. The agency started growing it for the Compassionate Access program back in the late 1970s…so what does that now mean when we consider decades of federally funded marijuana research?

Granted, the recent university study didn’t look at every strain the NIDA produces, but scroll back up to that photo of the twigs that were sent to Dr. Sisley. 

Since FDA-approved research goes through a 3-phase trial of specific parameters to determine a drug’s effectiveness, I’d like to believe the NIDA would want to ensure that their supply of marijuana was the best of the best, but that’s definitely not what we’re seeing here.

What we’re seeing are indications that researchers might not actually be receiving marijuana for their marijuana studies.

The other problem is that the NIDA has the monopoly on supplying marijuana for these studies, and while the DEA started accepting applications in 2016 for private facilities to provide research-grade marijuana, the agency has yet to accept any of them.

If the NIDA isn’t able to supply specific cannabis products necessary for a particular study, researchers are able to import them from Canada.

The DEA recently approved a California-based study to receive cannabis extracts from Canadian-based Tilray, a company that currently supplies research-grade cannabis for studies in Canada. So instead of allowing researchers to study the effects of the marijuana that is being grown in the United States for Americans to consume, our government might very well continue to allow Canada to supply the research-grade marijuana.

Since Tilray is one of the largest producers of medical cannabis in the world, at least we can presume American researchers receiving their samples are actually receiving the right stuff, but it’s still pretty sad to see the DEA choose a Canadian company over an American company, especially since in-state research studies already use local American marijuana.

To give you an idea of how Tilray products compare to NIDA weed, here’s some photos from a Canadian pot reviewer — note that this particular strain of Master Kush has 30.5 percent THC, which the NIDA is unable to produce.

While two bills have recently been reintroduced in Congress this month to help further marijuana legalization, neither addresses the NIDA’s monopoly head on. A couple of bills introduced in the House earlier this year do tackle this issue, and they’ve been referred to committees.

Subscribe to find out more about the 2019 Congressional bills that call for an increase in the number of manufacturers that can produce cannabis for research purposes. . .