By Chris Joyner/The Clarion-Ledger
OXFORD — It’s the smell — pungent and slightly citrusy- that first greets visitors to Mahmoud ElSohly’s office on the University of Mississippi campus.
Next are pictures lining the hallways of the bright green plants ElSohly has researched for 35 years as chief cultivator in the nation’s only legal marijuana farm.
The University of Mississippi Marijuana Project provides marijuana by the bale to licensed researchers throughout the nation. They study the drug through a federal contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Marijuana is grown in a field, nurtured in an artificially lit “grow room,” analyzed in labs and stored in drums in two bank-style vaults.
“It’s a complicated plant,” ElSohly said.
It’s complicated not only in its chemical composition but also because of the political and cultural baggage it carries.
Around the nation, policy makers are struggling with legalizing the drug for people who need its medical benefits while lobbyists push for even greater legalization.
“It’s a very controversial issue and a very emotional issue,” he said. “This is an illegal drug, a controlled substance. If this was milk thistle or any of these other herbal drugs, it would be no problem making this available or an extract available.”
Although he said he never has smoked it, ElSohly is a marijuana fan. He is an informed believer in the medical properties of THC, the chemical in the plant that produces a psychoactive “high” but also is being used to give relief to people with chronic ailments such as cancer or Parkinson’s disease.
Marijuana, he said, is a true wonder weed that, broken down into its chemical components, can be used for both constipation and diarrhea, he said. ElSohly and his colleagues have spent years studying and isolating the plant’s medical effects.
The federal contract pays the university about $480,000 during growing years — less on off years — to provide the cannabis to researchers. Ole Miss has been involved in marijuana research since 1968 and the NIDA contract dates to the mid-1970s.
Federal demand for the plant waxes and wanes, ElSohly said.
But Ole Miss’ contract to grow marijuana rankles some who see it as an unfair monopoly.
“It’s really handicapped research,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance Network, which favors legalizing marijuana for medical use and eliminating criminal penalties for possession.
One reason some question the approach at Ole Miss is because the project has a fundamental objection to smoking the plant, in part because of the nature of the university’s longstanding federal contract. But ElSohly, a research pharmacist, thinks it is just a bad way to take medicine.
Through years of research, ElSohly and other scientists have discovered more than 500 chemical compounds in marijuana, many of which he said can take on unpredictable characteristics when heated up several hundred degrees.
“Smoking produces thousands of chemicals that get into the lungs,” he said. “If the drug is to be used in any way, smoking is not the right way.”
ElSohly is working on non-smoking methods to ingest the drug, ways that separate the medical benefits from the psychoactive high. So far, the suppository method he has promoted has proven unpopular, but he is working on a patch placed on a patient’s gum line that delivers a mild, time-released dose of THC that he said gives the patient medical benefits without getting high.
Nadelmann said such research has value, but he said scientific studies indicate that the marijuana high is part of the reason it is effective. For that and other reasons, Nadelmann and other supporters of medical marijuana are pushing for legal consumption of the whole plant, something he said has broad-based support.
“If we were able to hold a ballot initiative in all 50 states, I think we would win in all but a handful,” he said.
Fourteen states allow some form of legal medical marijuana and advocates are pushing hard in others.
Iowa state Sen. Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat, said he thinks voters are ahead of policymakers when it comes to legalizing medical pot. Bolkcom sponsored a medical marijuana bill in the Iowa House that he acknowledges will not pass this year. But he said it will pass as soon as lawmakers figure out “the Iowa approach” to the problem.
“There still is some concern about making sure there is sufficient control in the system so that people who are chronically ill and in pain have access to this medicine, and it simply isn’t an avenue for legalization for recreational use,” he said.
Maryland Delegate Dan Morhaim, a Democrat, and Republican state Sen. David Brinkley have introduced bills in the General Assembly to allow medical marijuana use by people with serious illnesses. They say they have broad support.
Morhaim, a physician, said the bill will tightly regulate the dispensing of the drug through state-certified facilities instead of a grow-your-own approach adopted in other states.
Morhaim said ElSohly’s work on nonsmokable medicinal marijuana is worthwhile, but it is not the only answer and is not available now.
“This is about compassionate care,” he said. “There is no reason to be so marijuana-phobic as we have been in this country.”