At the Behavioral Biology Research Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, there’s a special room set up for smoking. Inside is a ventilated chamber made of plexi-glass and steel that is nearly the size of the room itself. And inside that chamber sits a young man, who is about to do something that in most circumstances would be against federal law.
He stands up when I come in, shakes my hand, and introduces himself as “Number 15.” He’s using his study identification number rather than his name because he doesn’t want the world to know he’s smoking weed in the name of science.
It’s 8:45 a.m. and Number 15 looks like he just rolled out of bed. He’s wearing a t-shirt and gym shorts, and his thick brown hair sticks out wildly in every direction. He sits back down in the chair, picks up a lighter and a small metal pipe, and gets to work.
The pipe is covered with a metal cap, so neither Number 15 nor research assistant Muhammad Waraq knows whether it’s a placebo or active marijuana inside. Number 15 has to continually tap the sides of the pipe with the light, to make sure all the weed falls to the middle of the bowl. It’s important that he smokes everything.
Each participant in the study has 10 minutes to finish the pipe full of weed. If it’s a high dose today, it will contain 10 milligrams of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly known as THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. Number 15 isn’t wasting any time. Every exhale is followed almost immediately by another hit on the pipe. He finishes in seven minutes.
Number 15 is part of a study funded by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA. Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Ryan Vandrey is running the study, at JHU’s Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit.
“There’s been a couple of studies comparing drug effects and blood pharmacokinetics for smoking and vaporization, but no study has done all three, blood, urine and saliva,” he said. “There’s also been very little evaluation of different doses on drug effects and cognitive performance.”
The three-story brick building where this research takes place wouldn’t look out of place on any college campus. The inside is equally unremarkable. There are narrow, winding hallways with offices and small rooms. I get a peek inside a staff kitchen, which looks like any other office kitchen.
But this place is remarkable, because scientists here study all kinds of drugs, from caffeine and nicotine to heroin and LSD. Security is tight. After Number 15 is done smoking, Waraq takes the pipe he used to the pharmacy to make sure all the marijuana is gone.
“One thing you should know is that this building is a maze. When I started working here it took me a good two months to realize which door I should go into,” Waraq says. “Every door has a key card entry, you can’t pass through it unless you work here and you have a badge.”
There are security guards at the building 24 hours a day and cameras all over the place. You have to have a badge just to get inside, and some doors, like the pharmacy, won’t open for just anybody, including Waraq. The pharmacist has to buzz him in.
I’m not allowed in the pharmacy so I have to wait outside. A few people pass me in the narrow hallway, giving me quizzical looks. It’s not the kind of place you typically see reporters. It took months of planning to get inside.
When Waraq comes back out, he tells me that the pharmacist has confirmed that Number 15 successfully smoked all the weed in the pipe. He’ll be happy to hear that.
As we round the corner on our way back to the smoking room, we see Number 15 sitting on the ground with his head between his legs. Another research assistant stands next to him with a clipboard, looking worried.
“You good?” asks Waraq.
“Very light-headed,” says Number 15.
The other research assistant helps him up and takes him to another room, where he’ll fill out a questionnaire so researchers can get a handle on how this strong drug effect feels for him. He’ll fill out the same questionnaire about a dozen times over the course of the next eight hours. He’ll also have blood drawn, saliva sampled, urine collected and vitals measured, and will complete cognitive tasks on the computer.
All this happens in what they call the “session room,” which looks like the central hangout area in a college dormitory. There are TVs and couches, a kitchen and even a pool table.
Each participant in the study will go through the whole day-long process six different times: three times smoking and three times vaporizing, with placebo, high dose and low dose weed.
Later on, after securing the right permissions, Vandrey takes me inside the pharmacy and introduces me to pharmacist Olivia Han. Han handles storage, accountability, preparation and dispensation of the drugs, which are stored in a large vault that takes up nearly one whole wall of the small pharmacy.
Only Han and a handful of other Johns Hopkins pharmacists are allowed inside the vault. Even Vandrey’s never been in there. Han hesitates when I ask if I can take a look, but eventually she opens the wide, heavy door – for about 15 seconds.
The vault is mostly empty except for a couple of refrigerated steel cabinets in the corner. Inside one of those cabinets is the 20 grams of marijuana Vandrey needs for his study, an amount that would fit in a sandwich bag.
The Drug Enforcement Administration requires that even small amounts of Schedule 1 drugs –those considered to have a high potential for abuse and no medical purpose – be stored in safes that weigh more than 750 pounds or are bolted or cemented to the floor. This vault exceeds those requirements, but Han says the DEA still comes to inspect the vault every time a new study starts just to make sure.
Storing the drugs is at the tail end of a long process of paperwork and permissions. For his study, Vandrey had to go through a university ethics review and get approval from the Food and Drug administration and the DEA. Then, there’s a whole other mess of red tape to deal with to actually get the marijuana.
Vandrey says it took about nine months to get the study off the ground. Given all the permissions, bureaucracy and strict storage and security requirements, I imagine the drugs being delivered in some sort of armored vehicle, so I ask him, “It’s not like UPS right?”
Vandrey gives me a nod. “FedEx,” he says.
This is just one of many contradictions inherent in marijuana research. Nearly half of U.S. states have legalized the drug specifically for medical uses, yet according to the FDA, there are no medical uses for cannabis. Here’s Vandrey again.
“The DEA has no motivation to unschedule cannabis and they’re sticking with their no established medical benefit, I think because the FDA hasn’t approved it. And nobody’s funding the trials that the FDA would need to see to approve it, and so it’s a quagmire,” Vandrey says. “It’s a horrible state of affairs and it’s highly driven by politics I think. It’s driven more by emotion than it is by science.”
While the DEA has once again rejected a request to reschedule marijuana, it is making one key change that could impact the pace of research. Currently, all the marijuana that Vandrey and other scientists use in their research comes from just one farm at the University of Mississippi. The agency says it will soon begin licensing other farms to grow marijuana for academic and medical research, though it hasn’t said when or how many.
Meanwhile, the march of states legalizing marijuana for medical purposes continues, at a pace far faster than scientists can prove that it actually works as medicine.