WSU partners with California company in hopes of receiving marijuana for research

By Kip Hill

The Spokesman-Review

Washington State University has made a deal with a California-based company in hopes of attaining pharmacy-grade marijuana for future study.

The school’s Collaborative for Cannabis Policy, Research and Outreach announced the partnership with Biopharmaceutical Research Co. in a news release last week.

WSU is not immediately providing compensation to the company, which owns an 8,000-square-foot facility ready to grow the drug east of Monterey, California, though the hope is to eventually import products grown there for study on both animal and human subjects, said Michael McDonell, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the university.

“We have a number of folks, including myself, that are interested in doing human-based research,” McDonell said. “Getting access to the cannabis that we need to do that work is hard.”

That difficulty is prompted by bureaucratic approvals for research on a drug that has been legalized for recreational and medical use in dozens of states but remains illegal under federal law. The Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration currently permit marijuana intended for research in the United States to be grown at just one location on the campus of the University of Mississippi.

Three years ago, the Justice Department announced it would be accepting new applications to grow the drug, given the demand from research institutions as more and more Americans gained legal access to marijuana. University personnel must also obtain licenses to work with the drug shipped from Mississippi. McDonell said at least five and perhaps as many as 10 researchers at WSU hold those licenses.

Those researchers are working on projects studying marijuana’s effect on hunger, pregnancy and other research questions.

Still more could be done if WSU’s team could work with the California company to grow varieties of the drug with a specific chemical makeup, McDonell said. And, even more important, products that researchers could prove to the Food and Drug Administration are safe for human consumption. The research community calls this “stability data.”

“There’s potential for us that, if we needed to provide stability data for a pill, they’d be able to analyze that for us,” McDonell said.

Biopharmaceutical Research Co. is one of 33 companies that has applied to the Justice Department to receive a license to grow the drug for laboratory study. But in three years, the department has not acted on approving those licenses, drawing pleas from the company’s chief executive officer, George Hodgsin, to do so. The company has chosen not to begin growing marijuana for sale in California’s legal market, instead waiting until they’ve received federal clearance to produce the drug for research purposes.

“I hope that as we’re sitting here talking, the DEA is actively looking through my application and through others,” Hodgsin, a former U.S. Navy SEAL who founded the company as an effort to research the drug’s potential benefits for veterans, told Fox News’ Dana Perino in an interview in August. “Every day that goes by with marijuana not being allowed to be produced for research means that there’s potentially another veteran that could be helped, another suffering patient in a patient population.”

Congress has weighed in, with Reps. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, and Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican, drafting legislation that would create timetables for the Justice Department to review licenses for new potential growers. That legislation has drawn bipartisan support, including from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane.

Hodgsin’s company already has a deal to provide similar services to the University of California, Davis. McDonell said the company approached the university about a partnership, and it is not exclusive, meaning Pullman researchers could also partner with license applicants that include the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and Trail Blazin’ Cannabis, a state-licensed producer based in Bellingham.

The list of potential licensees includes UC Davis and the University of Massachusetts. But McDonell said it’s unlikely WSU would be interested in growing marijuana themselves for research purposes.

“It’s just not feasible,” McDonell said. “It’s just so expensive, and there’s so much security.”

In addition to the projects already underway, there are researchers at WSU who would be interested in starting new studies if the university were to receive access to an additional supply of marijuana, McDonell said. That includes research on the drug’s effect for treating veterans experiencing chronic pain and post traumatic stress disorder.

Word about WSU’s limited research into cannabis has spread to that community, McDonell said, and the school receives a few phone calls a year from returning servicemen and women asking for study results.

“We’ve just got to know if it’s helpful or not,” McDonell said. “With all these restrictions on what we can and can’t do, we just don’t know.”