Proponents of medical marijuana have donated money for research to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit focused largely on medical use of ecstasy and marijuana. But executive director Rick Doblin of Cambridge said he and colleagues have repeatedly been denied access to the marijuana grown at the University of Mississippi.
The group’s latest application, to study the effects of marijuana in a small group of veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder, was turned down by a federal Health and Human Services review panel that evaluates privately funded studies of marijuana. The panel determined in September 2011 that the study design was not scientifically sound, a conclusion that Doblin disputes.
Researchers should not have “to go to the agency whose mission is [promoting] what’s wrong with illegal drugs — which is [the National Institute on Drug Abuse] — to find out what’s right with marijuana,” he said.
Lyle Craker, a professor of horticulture at the University of Massachusetts specializing in medicinal plants, has worked with Doblin since 2001 to establish a second production facility where he could grow marijuana in the controlled setting that research requires.
The Drug Enforcement Administration denied Craker’s application for a facility license in 2009. Craker is appealing the decision in federal court.
Steven Gust, special assistant to the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said there has been little demand from researchers to use the Mississippi supply.
“The fact of the matter is that there is no blocking of research of potential medical benefits of marijuana,” he said.
While he expects pharmaceutical companies to develop medications related to marijuana, Gust said the smoked drug has little chance of gaining approval from federal regulators.
Eric McCoy of Boston said he needs the drug now, and the Massachusetts ballot question will make it easier for him to get it. The 59-year-old began using marijuana about 17 years ago, shortly after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Like Ruby, McCoy uses a vaporizer that heats the plant, rather than burning it, and is meant to limit the inhalation of toxins.
He uses a scooter to get around outside his condominium. But McCoy said marijuana alleviates stiffness in his arms and legs, allowing him to navigate his home using handrails and live on his own.
“It allows me to take care of myself,” McCoy said. “I get up and do what I have to do to live life everyday.”
Grant said patients should have access to the drug while pharmaceutical companies work to develop better medications.
“There’s some evidence that marijuana might help,” he said. “Why deny that to the patient?”
Worried about what being caught with the drug would mean for his professional life and his family, Ruby recently moved from New York, where marijuana is illegal, to Colorado, where voters approved medical use 12 years ago.
Now, he is planning to create an organic marijuana distribution center to cater to patients like himself who are educated about the drug and have genuine needs. He said he believes it is only a matter of time before all states have legalized medical marijuana.
“We’re begging for it to be regulated and taxed,” he said.
Grant said the patchwork of state laws approved so far concerns him. He worries that storefront marijuana distribution is poorly controlled. He would rather see a federal plan that regulates the supply and potency of the drug, he said. That requires more research and a change in federal drug law, which now considers marijuana to have “no currently accepted medical use.”
“There’s no question it can have harmful potential,” Grant said. “But it’s not useless.”