Walk along the narrow, brightly lit beige hallway, along the washed-out linoleum floor, around the corner to the imposing steel vault. As a scientist swings open the door, a familiar, overpowering scent wafts out.
Inside, marijuana buds are packed into thousands of baggies filed in bankers boxes. Fifty-pound barrels are brimming with dried, ready-to-smoke weed. Freezers are stocked with buckets of potent cannabis extracts. Large metal canisters sit, crammed full of hundreds of perfectly rolled joints.
The vault even has boxes of “marijuana trash” — contaminated garbage that a crafty pothead might try to steal for a cheap high.
It is one of the nation’s most impressive stockpiles of marijuana — and probably the most controversial.
What makes the cannabis here on the campus of the University of Mississippi unique is that it is grown, processed and sold by the federal government. The stockpile represents the only source of pot allowed for researchers who want to conduct Food and Drug Administration-approved tests on using marijuana for medical purposes.
Researchers can’t get anything from the 46-year-old Marijuana Research Project at Ole Miss unless the Drug Enforcement Administration gives the go-ahead. A panel on which the National Institute on Drug Abuse is represented often must sign off too. Some prominent researchers complain approval is unreasonably tough for scientists whose work aims to find beneficial uses for the drug.
That has made Mahmoud A. ElSohly, the scientist who heads the team here, a favorite boogeyman for legalization activists and some researchers.
“It is a bizarre situation,” said Orrin Devinsky, director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at NYU Langone Medical Center. “The DEA is acting like this is 1935 and cannabis is this extremely dangerous substance.”
Indeed, under federal law, the government classifies marijuana as a more dangerous substance than cocaine, one that has no medical use, even as consumers in 21 states and the District of Columbia can legally light up. The DEA guards the stockpile here as if it were plutonium.
Devinsky, for example, is pursuing research involving a chemical in marijuana, known as CBD, which has recently shown promise in suppressing certain types of seizures. The storage vault here contains marijuana with high levels of the substance. But physicians can’t easily get at it — nor can their patients, Devinsky said.
Meantime, patients in states with dispensaries can walk up to a counter and buy pot, but with no good information about whether it includes a lot of CBD or a little.
ElSohly is currently ramping operations back up at the 12-acre farm here, which budget cuts have forced him to keep fallow since 2007. He is laying the groundwork to grow 30,000 plants. As he does, he finds himself accused of colluding with the DEA to maintain a monopoly.
But ElSohly, an Egyptian immigrant who has been in charge since 1980, is not so much a collaborator as a scientist stuck in a time warp. He is caught between marijuana researchers and a government agency that remains deeply suspicious of marijuana use even as it controls the million-dollar contract that funds his project.
Just before taking visitors on a tour of an indoor grow room, where he will roll the buds from mature pot plants between his fingers and declare “I love it” as he talks of the rich fragrance, ElSohly ponders the possibility that it will all come to an end as legalization gains momentum.
“I could lose it,” ElSohly said of his contract. “But so what? It would be just another research project that is terminated. I could start another.
“Maybe if it becomes legalized, we could start producing high-quality materials for a pharmaceutical product,” he adds.
Then, he clarifies.
“The liberalization of those laws really scares me,” he says. “To have marijuana available just like that? I feel sorry for Colorado and Washington state. In a few years, you are really going to see the impact of the liberal laws they have there.”
Unlike other cannabis researchers, ElSohly says pot should never be smoked. You do that for a high, he said, and there are ways to move the curative chemicals into your system without getting stoned.
For years, he has been trying to get approval to market a suppository. THC, the component of pot that makes people high, is “not absorbed through the rectum,” he says.
Business proposals like that have been a point of concern for critics, who accuse ElSohly of exploiting his insider status for profit and failing to recognize that many patients will never be able to afford cannabis in the forms he promotes.
The scientist notes that he has to jump through the same hoops as every other researcher to get trials approved. He doesn’t dare bend the rules, he says, since his contract depends on the DEA, and other institutions are eager to have it.
In 2007, a DEA administrative law judge ruled that the University of Massachusetts should also be permitted to grow pot for research. Top officials at the DEA overruled her.
Standing inside his grow room, where hundreds of small plants sit on metal grates, illuminated by industrial-scale lamps hanging from chains hooked to the 30-foot-high ceiling, ElSohly confides that he has never ingested the stuff himself.
“Never ever,” he says. “And I can say that with a straight face,” he adds.
“It doesn’t make sense for me to be working with a controlled substance and be using that controlled substance.”
That abstinence has made for awkward moments at cannabis conferences.
“They are always asking ElSohly and me to smoke,” said Zlatko Mehmedic, who was a narcotics official in Yugoslavia before joining ElSohly as a top deputy in 1995.
Inside the vault, Mehmedic grabs one of the thousands of baggies of buds sent to him for analysis by law enforcement agencies. Researchers here have been monitoring the increasing potency of pot sold on the street. A few puffs of the rich, green product he is holding could put a novice user in the emergency room, Mehmedic warns.
By contrast, he notes, the Mississippi researchers can say almost nothing about the strength or content of the products sold in licensed dispensaries.
“I would very much like to be able to get some of the materials available in dispensaries, look at them, analyze them, compare them with everything else around,” ElSohly said. “But I was categorically told by the DEA, ‘You cannot receive materials from a non-DEA registrant.’”
Meanwhile, the university’s pot farm remains a source of great interest on campus. Mehmedic looks into the distance at a cluster of student housing abutting the farm’s outer security fence and smiles. In addition to farming, there is also some fishing that goes on at the Marijuana Research Project, he says.
“They try, you know, to fish,” Mehmedic says of the students, mimicking the motion of casting a line over the fence in an attempt to reel in a pot plant.
All the anglers ever catch are visits from security.
But, Mehmedic adds, still “they try.”