Q. WHAT EXACTLY DOES THE MARIJUANA PROJECT DO?
A. Though cannabis had been used by man for thousands of years, it wasn’t until 1964 that the actual chemical structure of the active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol — THC — was determined. That stimulated new research on the plant.
At this laboratory, which began in 1968, we often investigate marijuana’s chemistry. We also have a farm where we grow cannabis for federally approved researchers. Our material is employed in clinical studies around the country, to see if the active ingredient in this plant is useful for pain, nausea, glaucoma, for AIDS patients and so on. For these tests, researchers need standardized material for cigarettes or THC pills. We grow the cannabis as contractors for the National Institute on Drug Abuse — NIDA. And the only researchers who can get our material are those with special permits. We have visitors at the building now and then who ask, “Oh, do you give samples?” We say, “No!”
Q. WHY BOTHER CULTIVATING YOUR OWN MARIJUANA WHEN LAW ENFORCEMENT ORGANIZATIONS SEIZE BRICKS OF IT EVERY DAY?
A. The most obvious reason is that with confiscated marijuana, you don’t really know what you have. When researchers are performing clinical tests, they must have standardized material that will be the same every time. And it must be safe. You certainly wouldn’t want to give a sick person something sprayed with pesticide or angel dust, substances we’ve detected in some illicit marijuana.
When this project first started in the late 1960s, people thought, “Oh, we’ll get materials for testing after a big bust happens.” So the first batch was acquired that way. They made an extract out of the seized material, and it turned out to be contaminated with tung oil. That brought home the point: if you’re going to do clinical trials on humans, you’d better know what you’re using and where it came from. Hence, our farm.
Another thing: pharmaceutical researchers are often looking at something they call “the dose response.” They want to know what happens to a patient smoking a marijuana cigarette with 1 percent THC versus 2 percent or 8 percent. Without standardized material, you can’t accurately test which produced the best or worst result.
Q. ONE OF THE BASIC PRINCIPLES OF AGRONOMY IS TO START WITH GOOD SEEDS. WHERE DO YOUR SEEDS COME FROM?
A. That’s a very good question. Most of the illicit material in the 1960s came from Mexico. So, in collaboration with the D.E.A. and the Mexican government, we acquired those seeds. Later, we acquired others from Colombia, Thailand, Jamaica, India, Pakistan and places in the Middle East. That permitted us to study chemical and botanical differences. By 1976, we were growing about 96 different varieties.
Interestingly, that led us to see that there was only one species of cannabis. It had always been thought that there were many. But you could see that the chemistry of this plant is the same qualitatively no matter where it comes from. What makes each different is the relative proportion of the different chemicals in there, which doesn’t make a different species. It’s really the same species, but different varieties of it. The different types of varieties hybridize very easily.
Q. DOES THIS MEAN THAT ONE COULD MAKE GENETICALLY MODIFIED CANNABIS?
A. Yes. Absolutely. That actually has been the trend over the years in the cultivation in the illicit market, and also in the legal market, where we are doing genetic selection, where we select specific materials that have the genes that produce higher levels of THC or some of the other ingredients.
Q. SO OUT THERE IN RURAL NORTHERN CALIFORNIA, HAVE THEY BEEN IMPROVING THEIR CROPS WITH MODERN GENETICS?
A. They have been doing genetic selection for years. You can see the potency keeps going up. In the 1970s, the seized marijuana had probably 1 percent or less of the active ingredient. Now, it’s about 8 percent, on the average.
Q. HOW DID YOU COME TO YOUR UNUSUAL SPECIALTY?
A. The honest truth is that it began out of necessity. In 1975, while I was in my last year of graduate school in natural products chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, the Lord provided me with twin daughters. My graduate student stipend was already over, and my adviser said, “You need to quickly find a job.”
So he recommended me for a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Mississippi’s Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences. My first job here had to do with poison ivy. Then a better-paying position opened up at the Marijuana Project, and I moved to that. I liked the research, and I got on well with my supervisor and mentor, Dr. Carlton Turner, who later became the director of drug abuse policy in the Reagan White House. So, this work, it just happened.
Q. DO YOUR NEIGHBORS EVER KID YOU ABOUT YOUR JOB?
A. My daughters, when they were in grade school, the teachers would ask them, “What does your father do?” And they’d say, “He grows marijuana.” And the teachers’ eyes would grow wide. After a while, my daughters said: “He works at the University of Mississippi. He’s a professor.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 24, 2008
A question-and-answer interview on Tuesday with Mahmoud A. Elsohly, who grows marijuana for research purposes, overstated the role of one government agency in the research. Although the National Institute on Drug Abuse does indeed contract with Dr. ElSohly’s laboratory to grow the cannabis for federally approved researchers, it does not issue permits to the researchers. (As the article noted, the