Serious medicine

September 03, 2010

Bennett Hall, Democrat Herald

Troy Morris thinks it's high time that medical marijuana was taken seriously, and he thinks he can help.

Even though 14 states, including Oregon, have passed laws recognizing the therapeutic use of marijuana, the drug suffers from a split personality. Supporters tout its ability to ease chronic pain, suppress nausea, calm muscle spasms and boost appetite. On the other hand, it's also an illicit substance that's illegal under federal law and remains weighed down by counterculture connotations from the era of long hair, short skirts and free love.

Aside from its outlaw image, one of the most vexing problems for medical marijuana is consistency. There are literally countless strains of the weed out there, and each one has different properties and effects.

That makes it nearly impossible for doctors and patients to predict exactly how the drug will impact symptoms from one batch to the next. And with varietal names like Lemon Zest, Train Wreck and Fog Cutter, it can be hard for physicians - or the general public - to take seriously.

Morris is one of several investors in a Corvallis startup called m-Research that aims to solve that problem. By standardizing information about the effects of individual strains, Morris and his partners hope to help medicinal pot drop its "Reefer Madness" baggage and finally take its place alongside mainstream pharmaceuticals.

"The information around marijuana is highly volatile. There's a lot of people who have opinions on both sides," said Morris, who has a background in chemical engineering. "What we decided to do was start collecting data."

M-Research takes a two-pronged approach to that task.

First, it uses chromatography to analyze the chemical components of each strain, which can vary enormously. While most people think of THC - tetrahydrocannabinol - as the active ingredient in marijuana, a 1999 study by the Institute of Medicine found 66 different cannabinoid compounds in the plant, including 11 variant forms of THC.

Next, m-Research assembles a "tasting group" of 12 to 18 state-licensed medical marijuana patients to evaluate the effects of a particular strain on their symptoms, alertness, appetite, activity level, mood and so forth. Each member of the group fills out a seven-page questionnaire, and the results are collated to determine the most consistent responses.

The information from both tests is combined to produce an "m-Scale" rating of the strain. The five-part m-Scale rating includes a number that ranks the marijuana on an "activity scale" from 1 to 9, based on how sedate or energetic it makes the user feel. It also includes a combination of four color-coded letters or symbols that indicate other major properties of the strain - strong versus mild, long- or short-lasting, depressive or euphoric, appetite-boosting, nausea-suppressing and so on.

The company plans to make m-Scale information available for free to patients, physicians and dispensaries. Where it hopes to eventually make money is by charging growers to register their strains.

"We have to establish a language" for talking about the effects of medical marijuana, Morris said. "And that language is m-Scale."

Market opportunity

There's no doubt that finding a way to quantify the medicinal properties of different marijuana breeds would be a big step forward for the drug's therapeutic use, said Todd Dalotto, who sits on the state's Advisory Committee on Medical Marijuana.

"The medicine isn't currently in a standardized form that doctors relate to pharmaceutical drugs," Dalotto said. "They don't know the percentage of THC - most doctors don't even know there are other active ingredients besides THC."

Dalotto calls the m-Scale "a good start" toward standardizing that information and thinks the system is flexible enough to allow for further development. But he cautioned that it will have to satisfy the needs of a multitude of user groups.

"The medical community has to accept it, the patient community has to accept it, and the growers, researchers and breeders have to be able to work with it," he said.

The early response from growers appears to be positive.

Travis Erwin, a Corvallis breeder and state-licensed grower who has registered some of his own award-winning strains with m-Research, said the system generated an instant buzz at a recent hemp festival in Southern Oregon.

"We took the m-Scale down there to see how growers would respond to it," Erwin said, "and they wouldn't let us sit down for a minute."

Nor is there any doubt that whoever comes up with a successful system for characterizing medical marijuana strains would be in a position to make a lot of money. There are hundreds of thousands of marijuana patients across the country, and fulfilling their needs stands to become increasingly lucrative as legal restrictions on medical pot become more relaxed.

Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access, a nonprofit group that promotes acceptance of medical marijuana, points out that 14 states and the District of Columbia already allow therapeutic use of the weed, and similar laws are under consideration in eight more states. In November, Oregonians will vote on Measure 74, which would create a system of state-licensed dispensaries to distribute marijuana to cardholding patients.

"This issue is not only not going away, but it is a public health issue that many states want to address," Hermes said. "And it's only a matter of time before the federal government will have to address it."

Eye on the prize

But m-Research is not the only venture out there hoping to be first to market with a classification system.

"It's definitely something that's being sought after and pursued by a number of commercial entities," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "That is clearly where the marketplace logically should go."

Among the contenders, St. Pierre said, are large dispensaries such as the Harborside Health Center in Oakland, Calif., which has all of its marijuana lab-tested for potency and is involved in developing new strains with highly specific medicinal properties.

He also pointed out that, in the underground economy where most marijuana commerce takes place, there are only a couple of established brands that currently carry much weight: High Times magazine and his own organization, NORML.

If either should decide to lend its name to a certification method, he suggested, it would carry considerable clout.

"Ultimately," St. Pierre said, "somebody will be trusted enough by the government and others to put a stamp of approval on this so that patients know what it is they're getting."

For Morris and his partners, the only question seems to be: Why not us?

They've been working hard to get the word out, meeting with growers, activists, physicians and patients up and down the West Coast. Trips to other marijuana-friendly jurisdictions are in the works, and they have an interview scheduled with that ultimate arbiter of cannabis culture, High Times.

And they have no shortage of confidence in their product and their business model.

"I trust myself to do this right," Morris said. "I'm trying to build the Nike swoosh of marijuana."

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