After years of trying to stamp out marijuana use on college campuses, Colorado officials are now asking the federal government to allow its state universities to grow their own pot.
The reason, they say, is that the legalization of the drug here has raised questions about its health effects, questions that can only be answered by studying large amounts and different strains of marijuana.
But researchers face bureaucratic hurdles in scoring pot from the one federally approved marijuana farm, a 12-acre facility at the University of Mississippi's National Center for Natural Products Research.
In a letter to federal regulators last month, Colorado Deputy Atty. Gen. David Blake said research into the "medicinal value or detriment of marijuana, particularly those strains not grown and made available by the federal government, have become important to the national debate over marijuana legalization."
Current research, he said, is "riddled with bias or insufficiencies" and federal help is needed to fill in the gaps.
Colorado specifically wants its state universities to contract with the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), which operates the pot farm, for expanded research on marijuana — namely, by being allowed to grow their own weed.
"We are basically seeking permission for an activity that has been banned for 70-plus years," said state Rep. Dan Pabon, a Democrat who helped craft the state's marijuana laws. "Universities are generally where the best research takes place so why not have the best and brightest working on discovering not only the dangers but also the therapeutic benefits of marijuana?"
He called the Mississippi pot farm a vestige of times past.
"But any time you engage in federal research, you need to abide by federal guidelines, so we need to be sure not to penalize the places that do this research," he said.
As Colorado's retail and medicinal marijuana markets have grown, so have a host of unanticipated health issues. The state has struggled to regulate edible pot to prevent overdoses while at the same time showing increasing interest in the potential benefits of cannabis.
"The conversation is changing," said Teri Robnett, a member of Colorado's Medical Marijuana Scientific Advisory Council, which helps oversee and evaluate cannabis research grants. "We have hospitals using cannabis therapy for epilepsy. What kind of epilepsy does it work best on? The only way we can find out is through research, but until we can grow our own marijuana all researchers have to go through NIDA."
Last month, the advisory council awarded $8 million in research grants to study the effect of pot on Parkinson's disease, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
"Hopefully, if NIDA can't provide what we need for those experiments they will let us use marijuana grown here," Robnett said.
The letter from the Colorado attorney general's office went to the heads of five federal agencies including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health.
"We need the support of our federal partners to overcome the inertia that continues to complicate state efforts in this area," the letter said. "We are committed to working with you in devising a system that will permit research and study in a safe, highly controlled and regulated manner."