Critics Aren't High on Federal Weed; Patients, Activists and a California Politician Are Taking `Pot' Shots at the Quality of Marijuana Being Grown on Government Farms for Use in Medical-Research Studies. (Nation: Medicinal Marijuana)

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With all the marijuana the government has seized throughout the years, one thing appears abundantly clear: The feds still don't know the first thing about pot. At least that seems to be the case in Mississippi where the government's controversial weed farm has been besieged with complaints.

"Ditch weed" is what some critics call the pot being grown on government farms and shipped to San Mateo County, Calif., for the first-ever publicly funded analysis of HIV patients smoking joints in their homes. Characterizing the federal product as a bunch of sticks, seeds and stems with stale leaves, observers ranging from patients to a cop turned county supervisor are not high on the socialized product.

Of course those pushing for the reform of marijuana laws are quite upset as well. Some charge that the government sabotaged the study to show pot can have adverse effects on patients who are seeking help in battling AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses. When complaints started to filter out in San Mateo about the poor quality of the federal weed, Dale Gieringer, California coordinator for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), blasted the government. "It's unconscionable that they would be giving this marijuana to patients," he says. "It's stale, low-potency ditch weed." A 1999 NORML survey showed that among 48 samples, the government's pot scored the lowest on levels of THC--the active ingredient in marijuana.

The groundbreaking study, which surprisingly has been supported quietly by the Bush administration, monitors its participants via self-reports, home visits, medication logs and return of leftover marijuana cigarettes. To be accepted into the study, a participant must be HIV-positive and suffering from neuropathy, a condition that afflicts AIDS, diabetes and other patients with severe tingling and pain in their hands and feet. Participants must have used pot before, have no record of other drug abuse, enjoy a stable home life and keep the government joints in a locked box.

"We have no interest, at present, in introducing people to marijuana use" claimed Dennis Israelski, chief of infectious disease and AIDS medicine at San Mateo County Health Center, when announcing the pilot program, which operates with about 600 marijuana cigarettes from the Mississippi pot farm kept in a hospital freezer. The study has a budget of $500,000 and is expected to last perhaps a year. About 30 joints per week are supplied to each patient. At first the patient smokes only in a special room in the health center but then is allowed to take the stash home.

But attracting qualified participants has been a serious problem ever since San Mateo County received the go-ahead about a year ago from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In fact, afar several months of screening patients, the county had only one patient who fit all the stringent criteria. That was free-lance journalist and AIDS activist Phillip Alden. Each week he would receive his federally grown marijuana cigarettes to smoke in his home.

But Alden tells INSIGHT he couldn't finish the study. "I was unable to complete the last week because I developed an upper respiratory infection similar to bronchitis," he says. The illness more than likely came from the substandard product, critics say. "The smoke was old, it contained seeds which taste awful when they burn and it was harsh on my throat," Alden says.

Since Alden left the program, fewer than a dozen patients have participated--far short of the 60 patients San Mateo County had hoped to use as human guinea pigs for the clinical trial.

Some say the county's inability to attract suitable patients might be linked to word on the street that the free pot being provided is unsmokable. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which grows the Mississippi farm weed, insists the problem is not with socialism but with dehumidifying. …