Unless you have  an Rx and live in a state with a medical marijuana provision, the federal government won’t let you grow or possess your own pot. But who knew the feds have been farming the stuff for decades? The Marijuana Project at the University of Mississippi cultivates nearly 100 varieties of the herb, and today we have a smidge more insight into the controversial lab.

The New York Times today ran an interview with Mahmoud ElSohly, 62, who heads up the project – the country’s only federally approved marijuana plantation. ElSohly offers some background: Scientists first determined the chemical structure of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), marijuana’s active ingredient, in 1964, then started the lab four years later to continue studying its chemistry.

The lab’s plants – grown, ElSohly says, from seeds seized from Mexico, Colombia, Thailand, Jamaica, India, Pakistan and the Middle East – are distributed to scientists studying, among other things how pot may ease pain, nausea, glaucoma and loss of appetite from AIDS. Those researchers need special permits from the Drug Enforcement Agency (D.E.A.) and approval from the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) and Department of Health and Human Services (H.H.S.) to conduct their research – if, that is, they’re lucky enough to get any of the coveted G-Man weed to begin with.

Scientists complain that they can’t get the official pot to develop THC-based drugs – and then are forbidden from growing their own, a 2006 piece in The Scientist noted. But they also criticize its quality, describing the government’s marijuana as weak, with an inconsistent chemical makeup.

Most of the feds’ marijuana is grown outside, which, like any other crop, leaves its quality to chance. (The weed is grown on 1 to 1.5 acres, yielding variable amounts of pot every two to three years.) But the disgruntled scientists’ criticism is “negative propaganda” that is “very, very false,” ElSohly told The Scientist in 2006 adding that he can custom grow the weed per scientists’ needs and produce pot containing up to 40 percent THC.

It's not clear whether the Times asked ElSohly about those criticisms; the reporter, Claudia Dreifus, does not have a phone number at the newspaper and didn't immediately respond to an email.

Steve Gust, special assistant to the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, tells us in an email that most of those concerns "have come from a very few individuals (some of whom have actually been quite successful at obtaining and using the marijuana in their research). The truth is that for almost 10 years the US Gov policy on provision of marijuana for research on potential medical uses has been open to researchers and the great majority of those who have applied for it have received it. 

"The amount available generally exceeds what is requested from researchers," Gust says.

"As for the claims regarding quality, we provide marijuana in a range of 'potencies,' from placebo (0 percent THC) up to 8 percent THC, and could provide it at higher concentrations if there were a demand from researchers," he adds. "The upper range closely tracks the THC potency of marijuana that is generally available in the illicit market. The marijuana provided now is of consistent quality and is well tolerated by research subjects."

Curious Marijuana Project passersby have less, er, heady concerns, ElSohly tells the Times. “We have visitors at the building now and then who ask, ‘Oh, do you give samples?’” he notes. “We say, ‘No!’”

Updated at 6:25 p.m. with additional information from NIDA.

Image of marijuana leaf by iStockphoto © Vladimir Vladimirov