Monday, February 22, 2010

Legal pot farm at Ole Miss

(AP) â€" OXFORD, Miss. - It's the smell-pungent and slightly
citrusy- that first greets visitors to Mahmoud ElSohly's office on the
University of Mississippi campus.

Next are pictures lining the hallways of the bright green plants ElSohly
has researched for 35 years as chief cultivator in the nation's only
legal marijuana farm.

The University of Mississippi Marijuana Project provides marijuana by
the bale to licensed researchers throughout the nation. They study the
drug through a federal contract with the National Institute on Drug

Marijuana is grown in a field, nurtured in an artificially lit "grow
room," analyzed in labs and stored in drums in two bank-style vaults.

"It's a complicated plant," ElSohly said.

It's complicated not only in its chemical composition but also because
of the political and cultural baggage it carries.

Around the nation, policy makers are struggling with legalizing the drug
for people who need its medical benefits while lobbyists push for even
greater legalization.

"It's a very controversial issue and a very emotional issue," he said.
"This is an illegal drug, a controlled substance. If this was milk
thistle or any of these other herbal drugs, it would be no problem
making this available or an extract available."

Although he said he never has smoked it, ElSohly is a marijuana fan. He
is an informed believer in the medical properties of THC, the chemical
in the plant that produces a psychoactive "high" but also is being used
to give relief to people with chronic ailments such as cancer or
Parkinson's disease.

Marijuana, he said, is a true wonder weed that, broken down into its
chemical components, can be used for both constipation and diarrhea, he
said. ElSohly and his colleagues have spent years studying and isolating
the plant's medical effects.

The federal contract pays the university about $480,000 during growing
years-less on off years-to provide the cannabis to researchers. Ole Miss
has been involved in marijuana research since 1968 and the NIDA contract
dates to the mid-1970s.

Federal demand for the plant waxes and wanes, ElSohly said.

But Ole Miss' contract to grow marijuana rankles some who see it as an
unfair monopoly.

"It's really handicapped research," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive
director of the Drug Policy Alliance Network, which favors legalizing
marijuana for medical use and eliminating criminal penalties for

One reason some question the approach at Ole Miss is because the project
has a fundamental objection to smoking the plant, in part because of the
nature of the university's longstanding federal contract. But ElSohly, a
research pharmacist, thinks it is just a bad way to take medicine.

Through years of research, ElSohly and other scientists have discovered
more than 500 chemical compounds in marijuana, many of which he said can
take on unpredictable characteristics when heated up several hundred

"Smoking produces thousands of chemicals that get into the lungs," he
said. "If the drug is to be used in any way, smoking is not the right

ElSohly is working on non-smoking methods to ingest the drug, ways that
separate the medical benefits from the psychoactive high. So far, the
suppository method he has promoted has proven unpopular, but he is
working on a patch placed on a patient's gum line that delivers a mild,
time-released dose of THC that he said gives the patient medical
benefits without getting high.

Nadelmann said such research has value, but he said scientific studies
indicate that the marijuana high is part of the reason it is effective.
For that and other reasons, Nadelmann and other supporters of medical
marijuana are pushing for legal consumption of the whole plant,
something he said has broad-based support.

"If we were able to hold a ballot initiative in all 50 states, I think
we would win in all but a handful," he said.

Fourteen states allow some form of legal medical marijuana and advocates
are pushing hard in others.

Iowa state Sen. Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat, said he thinks voters are ahead
of policymakers when it comes to legalizing medical pot. Bolkcom
sponsored a medical marijuana bill in the Iowa House that he
acknowledges will not pass this year. But he said it will pass as soon
as lawmakers figure out "the Iowa approach" to the problem.

"There still is some concern about making sure there is sufficient
control in the system so that people who are chronically ill and in pain
have access to this medicine, and it simply isn't an avenue for
legalization for recreational use," he said.

Maryland Delegate Dan Morhaim, a Democrat, and Republican state Sen.
David Brinkley have introduced bills in the General Assembly to allow
medical marijuana use by people with serious illnesses. They say they
have broad support.

Morhaim, a physician, said the bill will tightly regulate the dispensing
of the drug through state-certified facilities instead of a
grow-your-own approach adopted in other states.

Morhaim said ElSohly's work on nonsmokable medicinal marijuana is
worthwhile, but it is not the only answer and is not available now.

"This is about compassionate care," he said. "There is no reason to be
so marijuana-phobic as we have been in this country."

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