Mississippi university awarded 5-year contract to provide marijuana to researchers

Published 3:08 pm Monday, June 12, 2023

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has awarded the University of Mississippi a new five-year contract and $2 million work order for the cultivation of marijuana and related materials for research.

The five-year contract to the University of Mississippi denotes the university’s eligibility to apply for task orders through NIDA. NIDA crafts task orders to provide materials which meet the expected needs of research investigators.

By fulfilling this work order, Ole Miss will help NIDA – which is part of the National Institutes of Health – supply quality, contaminant-free cannabis and its extracts and other materials to DEA-licensed researchers.

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With the latest contract, UM will maintain its status as a leader in cannabis growth and research, said Donna Strum, dean of the School of Pharmacy.

“The university’s new National Center for Cannabis Research and Education and this latest contract with NIDA have positioned our university to play an important role in cannabis research, education and policy,” Strum said.

Because cannabis remains a Schedule I drug in the U.S., it is not legal for researchers to use federal funding to study the cannabis products that are available to consumers in dispensaries.

“While each medical cannabis state has its own regulations and standards, the products we manufacture meet the strict federal standards required by the FDA for clinical studies,” said Don Stanford, assistant director of the School of Pharmacy’s Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences. “We register our chemistry, manufacturing and control information in FDA Drug Master Files to assure researchers that their research materials meet those standards and that study results can be readily compared among researchers at various institutions.

“In addition, our manufacturing processes for making cannabis extracts and purified cannabinoids, many of which are patented, have been proven over time through peer-reviewed publications.”

Cannabis production through the NIDA contract will take place in the Coy Waller Lab as part of the Marijuana Project. The long-running program is housed in the pharmacy school’s National Center for Natural Products Research.

“For more than 50 years, University of Mississippi researchers have been at the forefront of cannabis research by providing standardized, responsibly grown product for scientific purposes,” said Noel Wilkin, UM provost. “Through our research, we will continue to advance the scientific knowledge around this complex plant in a way that will inform and benefit our society.”

Cannabis plants grow in an indoor facility operated by the UM School of Pharmacy. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services
The amount of marijuana requested through the NIDA contract has fluctuated over the years, with the university using its 1,100-square-foot indoor grow room for smaller requests and its 12-acre marijuana field for larger requests.

This one-year, $2 million task order includes a substantial increase in the amount of work requested compared to previous contracts, said Mahmoud ElSohly, director of the Marijuana Project and NCNPR research professor.

“The first task award under this contract is the largest contract we have ever been awarded in a year without an outdoor grow, both in the funding amount and the amount of work required in a single year,” ElSohly said. “We will not only be producing bulk plant materials of various potencies, but also placebo plant material, cannabis cigarettes, THC-rich extract, CBD-rich extract, pure THC and CBD, as well as minor cannabinoids for the NIDA Drug Supply Program.”

Interest in cannabis research has surged as medical marijuana use has expanded. In 2016, the DEA announced a new policy to allow additional growers to manufacture materials for research. Ole Miss is one of eight DEA-approved bulk manufacturers and growers, and the only higher education institution.

In the last decade, Ole Miss researchers have begun creating more diverse marijuana products for research, including extracts rich in THC, the plant’s psychoactive component, or cannabidiol, known as CBD.

Apart from its work with NIDA, the university has sought to expand its influence in the field of marijuana research.

In 2022, the pharmacy school founded the National Center for Cannabis Research and Education to develop programs to continue its legacy and expand into different areas of cannabis research and education. Earlier this spring, the university announced Robert Welch as the center’s first director.

Additionally, the pharmacy school plans to create a master’s program in dietary supplements and medical cannabis.

In January, the cannabis center partnered with the Mississippi Cannabis Patients Alliance and the Releaf app to gather data that will help researchers better understand cannabis treatments.

“I am excited about future possibilities and leveraging our cannabis expertise and experience to continue working to advance cannabis research,” Strum said.

This project has been funded in whole or in part with federal funds from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, under contract no. 75N95023D00010.