Six years after he first filed a petition with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seeking to grow marijuana to supply researchers, University of Massachusetts agronomy professor Lyle Craker is now one decision away from winning DEA approval of his project. Last week, a DEA administrative law judge issued a final recommendation that the project be allowed to move forward.
"Respondent's registration to cultivate marijuana would be in the public interest," wrote Administrative Law Judge Mary Ellen Bittner in her decision. "There is currently an inadequate supply of marijuana available for research purposes," she concluded, noting also that the risk of diversion was minimal and that Craker had complied with all applicable laws.
But the judge's decision is not binding. The final decision on Craker's petition will be made by the DEA's deputy administrator, and it is by no means certain that the functionary will heed the judge's recommendations. The agency has historically opposed any efforts to end the government monopoly on growing marijuana for research purposes and it has already stated that it disagrees with the judge's conclusions.
Backed by the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which will finance the research, and represented by the American Civil Liberties Union's Drug Law Reform Project, Craker has persevered for more than half a decade as his request languished in the bowels of the DEA. Now, only one obstacle remains.
In an effort to press the DEA to respond favorably to the petition, Dr. Craker and his backers and supporters held a press conference Wednesday at the agency's Northern Virginia headquarters to turn up the heat. "Working with medical marijuana seems so similar to the work we're doing with other medicinal plants that I've never understood the DEA's big problem with it," said Craker.
"The DEA has an opportunity here to live up to its rhetoric, which has been that marijuana advocates should work on conducting research rather than filing lawsuits," said MAPS president Dr. Rick Doblin "It's become more and more obvious that the DEA has been obstructing potentially beneficial medical research, and now is the time for them to change," he said.
"For almost 20 years, MAPS has been trying to conduct the research," Doblin noted. "We've had two protocols approved by the FDA, one to look at AIDS wasting and the other looking at medical marijuana for migraines. Both were blocked by NIDA, which refused to provide the marijuana we needed to do the studies. We've been struggling for four years to purchase 10 grams for vaporizer research for a non-smoking delivery system. Currently, the government has a monopoly, and our ability to do research is fundamentally compromised," he noted.
"We've won the latest round in the perennial litigation, with the DEA judge recommending that Dr. Craker get the license," said Doblin. "Unfortunately, we have to unleash a major lobbying campaign to get the DEA to live up to its rhetoric. The government is too trapped into the drug war to be comfortable funding studies that might contradict the propaganda and 'send the wrong message.' We have a situation where the government is focused on suppressing research, not facilitating it."
Also at the press conference was medical marijuana patient Angel Raich, whose challenge to federal marijuana laws went all the way to the US Supreme Court before being denied in 2005. "It is extremely frustrating that the federal government has made a really large effort to block research that could help patients like me," said the California woman, who uses marijuana to alleviate the symptoms of seizure disorders, wasting syndrome, and an inoperable brain tumor, among other conditions. "It is time for the government and the DEA to stop playing games with patients' lives," she said.
"The ACLU is involved because we believe patients like Angel should be able to get their medicine from a pharmacy, like everyone else," said the ACLU's Drug Law Reform Project's Allen Hopper. "Judge Bittner reached the only decision she could under the law," he argued, noting that Bittner acknowledged that NIDA had a stockpile of research marijuana, but that researchers were routinely denied access to it.
"We are here today," Hopper continued, "because we are now one step away from entering the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process. We are confident the administration will do the right thing, but we are also prepared to go to the federal court of appeals to force the DEA to do the right thing if necessary."
An impressive array of politicians and groups is prepared to push the DEA in the right direction. Massachusetts Sens. John Kerry (D) and Edward Kennedy (D) and 38 members of the House of Representatives have joined a broad range of scientific, medical and public health organizations in challenging the federal government's policy of blocking administrative channels and obstructing research that could lead to the development of marijuana as a prescription medicine. These organizations include the Lymphoma Foundation of America, the National Association for Public Health Policy, the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, as well as several state medical and nurses' associations.
Now it is up to the DEA to render a final decision. The DEA administrator who will make the call is not bound by Judge Bittner's recommendation, nor is she required to make her decision within any timeline. It will be up to public pressure to produce the desired results. Wednesday's press conference was only the beginning.