The federal government is set to finally contract another marijuana manufacturer to supply cannabis for research purposes, posting a pre-solicitation notice about the opportunity for recently authorized growers.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has worked with the same single marijuana farm at the University of Mississippi for more than 50 years, and scientists have been critical about the quality of the cannabis and extracts produced at the facility. Now there’s a chance to break the monopoly and expand the available product pool for researchers.
NIDA posted the pre-solicitation notice last week, notifying institutions that have received Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) approval to cultivate cannabis that they will be able to submit applications to supply marijuana starting on or around July 28. This comes about two months after the agency first published an initial “sources sought” notice to gather information from prospective applicants about their ability to grow and analyze cannabis.
The new notice outlines various requirements and responsibilities for manufacturers. For example, they must be able to “produce or procure cannabis, cannabis extract and other cannabis-derived materials for basic and clinical research, and conduct quantitative and qualitative analysis, stability determination, and recommended storage conditions for these products for approved research.”
NIDA will dictate how much marijuana it needs produced and what types of cannabinoids should be extracted and analyzed prior to being transferred to the agency, which will then distribute the products to research institutions.
“In order to meet present and anticipated needs for phytocannabinoids, the Contractor shall extract cannabis to isolate pure THC and other cannabinoids, obtain cannabis extract of known potencies, manufacture marijuana cigarettes of varying potencies, and provide purified materials and marijuana cigarettes for research and/or to the NIDA Drug Supply program,” the notice says.
DEA has so far authorized at least six more facilities to grow marijuana for research purposes, and NIDA said it will only be awarding one contract for a five-year period, so it’s likely to be an intense competition to become the second federally authorized supplier in the country.
Experts and lawmakers have consistently complained about the current, exclusive supply of marijuana that NIDA has been dependent upon, citing studies showing that the chemical makeup of that cannabis more closely resembles hemp than marijuana available in commercial state markets, potentially skewing research findings.
But it’s not just the supply of government-grown cannabis that’s impeded research; scientists also say that the Schedule I status of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act is prohibitive on its own, discouraging researchers from taking on cannabis studies.
Even the head of NIDA, Nora Volkow, said that she’s personally reluctant to go through the onerous process of getting approval to study Schedule I drugs like marijuana. Volkow has been repeatedly pressed on cannabis research issues, as well as the agency’s work with respect to other substances like kratom and various psychedelics.
President Joe Biden did sign a large-scale infrastructure bill last year that includes provisions aimed at allowing researchers to study the actual marijuana that consumers are purchasing from state-legal dispensaries. But the legislation, rather than immediately giving scientists access to the products, lays out a fairly long-term plan for considering the issue and then potentially making that happen down the line.
Meanwhile, NIDA also announced last month that it plans to provide $1.5 million in funding to support researchers who can develop a medical marijuana registry to track everything from how patients are obtaining and consuming cannabis to their health outcomes.
The agency has also expressed interest in funding studies on differing cannabis regulatory models that are in place in states across the country.
In May, NIDA separately published a “sources sought notice” for “Analysis of Cannabis and Related Materials for Research,” seeking information from prospective contractors that are able to analyze marijuana samples—including those that come from state-legal dispensaries—for research purposes.
For its part, DEA has also been increasing annual production quotas for marijuana and other substances like psilocybin as demand from the research community has surged.
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