Strains of NIDA

In the U.S., “research-grade” cannabis means “sub-commercial-quality”—which is hurting scientific progress

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Close up of dry, low quality cannabis
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For a very long time “research grade” cannabis could only come from a single source: the National Center for the Development of Natural Products at the University of Mississippi—a facility producing marijuana exclusively for the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA) research. All cannabis used in scientific settings throughout the U.S., be it at a university lab or with a private researcher, had to come from NIDA.  

But NIDA’s cannabis is of exceptionally poor quality, as researchers like Daniela Vergara have found. It’s a problem that has been hindering scientific, medical, and legal progress in this area, she says, but it’s a problem that has a very simple solution.

Vergara is an evolutionary biologist studying cannabis genomics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She and her colleagues have produced two papers both examining the quality of NIDA’s cannabis: The first, in 2017, examined the phenotypic variation of the federally produced marijuana, and the second, in 2021, looked at its genomic variation.

Both studies examined NIDA’s strains from different angles and yet both of them came to very similar conclusions: “Federally produced cannabis does not reflect [what’s being sold in] the legal market,” Vergara says. 

Her 2017 study is titled “Compromised External Validity: Federally Produced Cannabis Does Not Reflect Legal Markets.” In it, cannabinoid profiles among commercial plants from Denver, Oakland, Sacramento, and Seattle were compared against that of NIDA’s. It was a phenotypic study, examining the outwardly observable characteristics of the different plant products. 

“We found that NIDAs cannabis has lower variation and has lower potency compared to the private market,” Verga says of the 2017 paper. They concluded that NIDA’s cannabis consistently showed limited diversity in cannabinoid levels, in the cannabinoids present, and in the ratio of those cannabinoids. 

“If you smoke cannabis from NIDA you are probably not going to feel the same thing that you’re getting from dispensaries,” Vergara says. 

Vergara’s more-recent 2021 study of NIDA’s cannabis, titled “Genomic Evidence That Governmentally Produced Cannabis Sativa Poorly Represents Genetic Variation Available in State Markets,” was a follow-up to their 2017 paper. It examined the genotypic variation in NIDA’s cannabis (that would account for the phenotypic expressions they observed in 2017) compared to that of commercial cannabis. And again they discovered that they were disconcertingly dissimilar. 

“What we found is that the genome is very different from the strains of the available markets,” she says. “They do not [genetically] cluster with any other commercial strains. They cluster kind of on their own. They’re more similar to each other than to any commercial strain.”

This means that all of the scientific data coming from other research on cannabis isn’t as accurate as it could (or should) be, according to Vergara. 

“People are not buying NIDA’s cannabis when they go to a dispensary,” Vergara says, and that’s simply because the two strains of cannabis that NIDA grows aren’t even commercially available. “[We] are analyzing just a fraction of genomic variation of [what is] out there . . . so all of the scientific claims that have been made using those varieties may not be valid.”

She likens it to any other genetic study: If you’re trying to research human genetics, but were only allowed to study two people, and they were both siblings, your results wouldn’t be very representative.

“It’s just a fraction of the genomic variation that’s actually out there,” she says. “And that doesn’t make sense.”

Vergara isn’t the only researcher who has come to these conclusions, either. In 2019 a group of researchers led by Anna L. Schwab (a co-author on Vergara’s papers) found in a separate study that NIDA’s cannabis was genetically more similar to hemp than psychoactive marijuana. And in 2021, in another study comparing NIDA’s cannabis to both commercially- and wild-grown cannabis, Schwabe found, “‘research grade marijuana’ provided for research is genetically distinct from most retail drug-type cannabis that patients and patrons are consuming.”

These studies provide evidence that NIDA’s cannabis is skewing the scientific understanding of the cannabis plant and its effects, which is undoubtedly holding legalization back. 

Hopefully that’s starting to change, though. In May 2021 the DEA finally changed its policy, ending NIDA’s cannabis monopoly by licensing four other bulk cannabis manufacturers to produce research-grade marijuana for science. It isn’t a perfect situation, since researchers still can’t get their research-grade cannabis from a dispensary—but it could help mitigate the problem. Now, government approved cultivators are allowed to provide researchers with any marijuana product currently on the market. 

Problematically, though, they still have to grow and produce those products solely themselves, all at their DEA-licensed facilities. 

Vergara points to a much simpler, and far more effective solution that would solve all of these problems: “Legalization,” she says, flatly. If the federal government simply ended the prohibition of cannabis, cannabis science would no longer be held up, held back, or held hostage by the DEA.