Saturday May 22 1:18 AM ET
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government said Friday it was getting into the business of selling marijuana -- although only to "'bona- fide" researchers.
The problem is, it doesn't know how much to charge and has no idea how many people will be interested in buying.
Two months after a government-commissioned study found smoking marijuana may have some medical uses, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said it was changing the rules on who can get government-grown marijuana for research.
The HHS's National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) said it would open its program for selling research-grade marijuana to any researcher, not just those funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
"We are expanding the potential availability by saying that we will provide marijuana to bona fide researchers who are not NIH-funded," Steve Gust, special assistant to the director of the NIDA, said in a telephone interview Friday.
In March the Institute of Medicine (IOM), one of the arms of the National Academy of Sciences, backed certain uses of marijuana, which is illegal for any use in most states.
The IOM study said marijuana clearly controlled some forms of pain, was not particularly addictive and appeared to help some patients with severe AIDS or cancer symptoms such as nausea, weight loss and lack of appetite.
NIDA has for years distributed specially grown marijuana to researchers studying its effects. It is grown in controlled plots at the University of Mississippi, where it is analyzed for purity and content.
"You have to provide a product that you know what it is so you can measure the results," HHS spokesman Campbell Gardett said. "It's research-grade marijuana."
Gust said the marijuana had been given free to researchers but now his
department was going to have to start charging for it. "We are still trying
to cost it, given that this is a change in the way the farm contract works.
It's more complicated than you might think," he said. NIDA will not take
street prices of the drug into account. "The street stuff isn't grown
in a secure environment where they do analysis," Gust said.
And he warned the government is not in the business of selling the high- grade product. "I think we have a reputation for not growing primo stuff," he laughed.
Many of the volunteers testing marijuana for medical effects are long- term users and have offered their critiques.
But the research-grade weed is good for the purpose. "I think the stuff we grow definitely has adequate THC content to have an effect and to be adequately tested for these effects," Gust said. THC, or tetrahydrocannobinal, is the main active ingredient in marijuana. Gust said his agency has no idea how many requests it will get for the marijuana.
"I would anticipate that we might get some, based upon past history in terms of proposals that have been submitted to regular NIH channels," he said. So far that has only been a handful.
But, he added, it could be the attention surround the IOM report would generate more interest.
He said only three studies are underway now. One is looking at the safety of smoked marijuana in HIV patients, particularly those taking antiviral drugs.
Another about to start at the Medical College of Virginia will compare
THC pills to smoked marijuana in moderating pain. Some patients
complain that the pills are not as effective. And a team at the University of Chicago is studying whether smoked marijuana works better on THC in easing nausea.