Rebecca Caffrey is the first to admit that her lab isn’t glamorous. She’s spent the last three years in a windowless room focused on clinical tests related to liver disease. For fun, she and her nine colleagues named the refrigerators where they store research samples.
“So we have Wheezy, which is the really loud one,” Caffrey said. “And then all the others are named after cartoon characters.”
Caffrey is the co-founder of Sanyal Biotechnologies, a Norfolk-based firm that is entering the complicated and evolving business of medical marijuana research.
In 2017, a drug company approached the firm to test a cannabis drug. To do that, Sanyal needed to get permission to import marijuana from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Last year, after lots of paperwork and background checks, the DEA granted the company a license to import several types of cannabis extracts.
Unlike most other import licenses, theirs isn’t tied to a specific research project. Caffrey believes Sanyal’s DEA license could be the broadest the agency has ever granted.
“I thought they must've made a mistake,” Caffrey said. “They must have checked the wrong box. But I've been told repeatedly by people who know more than I do that they don't make mistakes and that we were probably a test case.”
A DEA spokesman said the agency doesn’t comment on specific licenses, and didn’t respond to most questions from WCVE. The license issued to Sanyal allows the company to bring in cannabis extracts from countries where its legal for medical research. There’s theoretically no limit on how much they can bring in, as long as it’s for research approved by the DEA.
Marijuana import licenses are a new phenomenon, according to Paul Armentano with marijuana advocacy group NORML.
“The federal government has begun to grant those import licenses in recent years and in past years they really had no history of doing so,” Armentano said in a recent interview.
He said marijuana-related research is growing in spite of red tape from the federal government.
“Are the hurdles higher than they ought to be?” he asked. “Most certainly. But is research taking place in the United States? Yes. More so than ever before.”
Marijuana from NIDA at the Scottsdale Research Institute in Arizona. Critics say NIDA's University of Mississippi farm produces substandard marijuana. (Photo: Scottsdale Research Institute in Arizona)
Armentano and other advocates say marijuana is harder to research than other Schedule I drugs, like heroin and MDMA.
One problem is sourcing the pot. Researchers have traditionally had to get all their marijuana from a University of Mississippi farm run by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The farm is becoming more popular; last year, 20 researchers got marijuana there, up from 8 in 2013.
But their weed isn’t known for its quality. Sue Sisley heads the Scottsdale Research Institute in Arizona, which conducts studies with cannabis treatments for PTSD in military veterans. She says marijuana from the Mississippi farm is full of sticks and mold.
“You're sabotaging these studies from the beginning by forcing scientists to use this really low quality, diluted plant material,” Sisley said.
NIDA says that its marujuana has been used successfully in many studies. But the DEA acknowledged in 2016 that the current farm in Mississippi wasn’t fully meeting researcher’s needs, and said it would start accepting applications for new farms. An agency spokesman says work is still underway with the Department of Justice. Sisley says they’re stalling.
“We desperately need to dismantle this monopoly and license our own talented cultivators to do this work,” Sisley said.
A New Alternative
In the meantime, researchers can now turn to importers like Sanyal. With this license, the company can bring in cannabis compounds like CBD and THC, but not the marijuana plant itself. For researchers like Sisley, that’s an important distinction. The flower of the plant has been smoked for centuries and is widely used today. Sisley believes it holds the most medical promise because of the synergistic effects of various marijuana compounds found there.
Sanyal Biotechnologies hasn’t imported anything yet. Caffrey says one obstacle is convincing exporters in Canada and Israel that they’re a legal, DEA-certified business. She says exporters have no problem selling opiates to U.S. researchers.
“They’re used to that,” Caffrey said. “They're not used to somebody like us who's little, saying, “Hi, I'm here to bring in some cannabis extract.’”
Researcher Sue Sisley examines a shipment marijuana provided by NIDA. (Photo: Scottsdale Research Institute in Arizona)
Finding experts to help with things like testing the marijuana, and who meet DEA’s criteria for a squeaky-clean background, is also an issue. Many people with relevant experience are more used to covert marijuana farms in California than DEA-approved research labs, according to Caffrey.
“You have somebody who literally goes from farm to farm in Humboldt [County, California] and they're doing an extraction and telling the farmer how much THC content is in their weed crop,” she said. “It's very interesting talking to them because they know what to do, but they don't know how to do it legally and in a regulated environment.”
The company is currently fundraising for a new lab in Norfolk. Caffrey has already been approached by investors and expects it won’t be a problem raising money in an industry enjoying a moment she likened to the dot-com boom she lived through in California in the late 1990s. Caffrey believes her company will survive the current bubble, thanks in part to their rare slate of licenses from the federal government.
Sanyal’s goal is to become a hub for testing the potential benefits of marijuana on illnesses they’re already studying, like diabetes and obesity.
“We need to be able to sort out the old wives tales and the myths from what it really is medically useful for,” Caffrey said. “And I think we can help do that.”
One of Virginia’s first five medical marijuana dispensaries is opening just a short drive away from Sanyal’s lab later this year. They’ll grow their own cannabis onsite.
But that pot is off limits to Caffrey and other researchers. For now, it's easier for them to get marijuana from a farm in Israel than from one down the road.
Read part one of this series: Virginia’s Medical Marijuana Program Clouded By Confusion