Pot Research for Veterans' Care Delayed by University Firing and NIDA

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Some 22 veterans commit suicide each day, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). Rick Doblin aims to save them with research that explores the use of marijuana to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

"Many veterans are not adequately treated for their PTSD and as a result use marijuana illegally," said Doblin, founder and executive director of the non profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). "Marijuana is a legitimate option for people to treat PTSD under doctor supervision, but there's no evidence from controlled clinical trials to support it."

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MAPS has been working since 1992 to conduct medical marijuana drug development research.

"Several states have approved PTSD as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana, but Colorado and Arizona have not and that's because there's no scientific data and the research has been blocked," Doblin told MainStreet.

That may be because of a general perception that marijuana can be addictive.

"Marijuana is usually not a big motivator to get people to reclaim their lives so it's not my first choice," said Greg Hannley, CEO of SOBA Recovery, an organization that is opening a 300-bed addiction rehabilitation center for veterans in San Antonio.

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Despite the opposition to his vision over the years, Doblin experienced a breakthrough in March.

While working with a University of Arizona assistant professor named Dr. Sue Sisley, MAPS won federal approval to purchase marijuana from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to test on 70 veterans, but the start of the study was put on hold when Sisley was abruptly terminated in April. She is currently appealing the university's decision.

"The most unfortunate component of this action is that the university lost a major opportunity to be a beacon for much needed marijuana research and development into the plant itself," said Tae Darnell, a cannabis law expert. "No matter how it is canned, Sisley's firing is a loss for patients in need of advancing science around this medicine."

Another wrench in the wheel is NIDA's unwillngness or inability to provide MAPS with a supply of marijuana. Doblin was told NIDA needed until January 2015 to grow new marijuana crops."Colorado growers offers higher quality marijuana than NIDA produces but it's not grown under Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) license so we can't use any of it," Doblin said.

NIDA falls under the jurisdiction of the National Institute of Health, and this year is not the first time MAPS has been denied access to marijuana for research purposes. In the late 1990s, MAPS worked with Dr. Ethan Russo to study the impact of marijuana on migraines.

"That study was approved by the FDA and the Institutional Review Board but NIDA refused to sell MAPS marijuana so the study died," Doblin said.

From 2003 to 2009, MAPS tried to purchase ten grams of marijuana from NIDA for laboratory research into contents of the vapors that are produced by vaporizers but NIDA again refused to sell.

As a result, Doblin filed a lawsuit against the DEA to break NIDA's monopoly on supplying marijuana for FDA approved research.

"We've been engaged in 12 years of litigation against the DEA to license new grow facilities," Doblin said. "We won a DEA administrative law judge hearing saying it's in the public interest for the NIDA monopoly to end, but the DEA administrator rejected that recommendation from the judge."

For now, Doblin is regrouping and exploring applying for private funding to complete the study.

"Neither MAPS or Dr. Sisley want to delay this potentially life-saving study, but since NIDA can't provide the marijuana we need until about January 2015, Sue's appeal and our possible move of the study to a new location will not delay the start of the study," said Doblin.

While legally challenging the University of Arizona's firing of Sisley in order to secure her rehiring, MAPS is also looking around for a new institutional setting for the study.

"University of Arizona officials have contacted me to say that they strongly want to continue to partner with MAPS on this study but they have a new person to suggest as principal investigator to replace Sue," Doblin said. "I have rejected the university's offer because I support Sue's appeal."

--Written by Juliette Fairley for MainStreet

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