The U.S. Government Isn't Very Good at Producing Marijuana

Scientists have determined that marijuana sold in the private sector is far superior to Uncle Sam's stash.
Illustration: Stephanie Davidson

Looking for the finest weed? Turn to private purveyors, not the feds. New research finds that government-produced cannabis offers fewer variations and a lower concentration of cannabinoids than marijuana sold by dispensaries in states where the drug is legal. 

The study was published in Nature on Wednesday, a day before the nation's unofficial marijuana holiday, April 20. (The publication date was pure coincidence, according to lead researcher Daniela Vergara.) Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and Steep Hill Labs Inc., a California-based cannabis testing laboratory, analyzed close to 3,000 samples. 

Cannabis produced by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)—which is used in laboratory experiments—was compared with cannabis grown by private companies and sold at dispensaries for state-legal consumption. According to the study, the government-grown weed had just 27 percent the THC level found in private-sector weed. 

State-legal marijuana may be more potent in part because it is kept in a manner that helps prevent THC from degrading. "We believe there is a storage issue, either because they are not storing it correctly [or they're] waiting for a long time before testing it," Vergara said in a phone interview.

This federal pot has been criticized in the past for not looking or smelling like cannabis both by researchers and professional critics. Asked about the findings, NIDA acknowledged that one farm cannot produce all the strains of cannabis available on the private market. This "is why NIDA supports the recent DEA decision to increase the number of farms eligible to grow marijuana for use in research," said Dr. Jack Stein, the Director of the Office of Science Policy and Communications at NIDA.

"The data demonstrate that Cannabis plants currently grown for NIDA are not representative of plants consumed by recreational and medicinal users through state-legalized markets across the nation," the study stated. "Cannabis flower available from dispensaries appears to be more potent and diverse in cannabinoid content."

The study's authors argue that American scientists should have access to marijuana that is closer in composition to what is sold in legal dispensaries around the country. "This mismatch between what the public is using and what is available to researchers limits scientific study on the potential harms or benefits," the authors wrote. 

Vergara believes that allowing researchers to obtain state-legal cannabis could help to alleviate some of the problems scientists experience, as it can be difficult to procure NIDA samples, she said. "If they rescheduled it, it would be very easy for us to work with cannabis that people are using."

Compared with illegal cannabis, the government's weed has less THC, but both varieties are inferior to state-legal marijuana. For the most joyous possible holiday (and to comply with the law), obtaining your bud from a dispensary is ideal.

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