A Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) administrative law judge ruled Monday that a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst should be allowed to grow marijuana for research purposes. The ruling is non-binding, and the decision resides ultimately in the hands of DEA head Karen Tandy, but the decision by Judge Mary Ellen Bittner paves the way for Professor Lyle Craker, a horticulturist specializing in medicinal plants, to possibly become the second authorized grower of marijuana for research purposes in the United States.
Craker first applied to the DEA for permission to grow marijuana for research purposes in 2001 and won the support of home state senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry for the project. But for years, the DEA refused to act on the request, and in 2004, Craker and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) sued the agency, charging it with unreasonable delays in dealing with his application.
After hearings last year, the agency responded by denying his application, saying that there was no shortage of marijuana for research purposes, and Craker and his private backers were free to submit bids to compete for the marijuana-growing contract. But Craker and MAPS vehemently disagreed and sought a ruling by a DEA administrative law judge.
In her Monday ruling, Judge Bittner found that Craker's bid to grow marijuana "would be in the public interest." Her opinion noted that: "There would be minimal risk of diversion of marijuana. There is currently an inadequate supply of marijuana available for research purposes... [and] competition in the provision of marijuana for such purposes is inadequate."
While the decision is not definitive -- the DEA has 20 days to respond, and it may ignore the judge's findings -- Professor Craker and MAPS greeted the decision with guarded optimism. "This ruling is a victory for science, medicine and the public good," said Craker in an MAPS press release. "I hope the DEA abides by the decision and grants me the opportunity to do my job unimpeded by drug war politics."
"For decades, politicians have said that marijuana has no proven medical value while scientists have been denied the ability to prove otherwise," said Rick Doblin, PhD, president and founder of MAPS.
The American Civil Liberties Union Drug Law Reform Project, which helped argue the case, also pronounced itself pleased with the ruling. "For too long the DEA has inappropriately inserted politics into a regulatory process that should be left to the FDA and medical science," said Allen Hopper, an attorney with the project, in a press release. "We are pleased that the judge has recommended an end to the federal government's blockade of medical marijuana research."
The DEA has refused to comment on the ruling so far, but, as noted above it is non-binding. Optimism over the ruling is tempered by the memory of DEA's administrative law Judge Francis Young's 1988 finding that marijuana is among the most benign therapeutic substances known to man. That ruling came in a bid to reschedule marijuana as a prescription medicine, but was ignored by the agency.
"I hope that Administrator Tandy abides by the decision and grants me the opportunity to do my job unimpeded by drug war politics," Craker said.
There is strong support for Craker and MAPS's bid to grow their own marijuana to do DEA- and FDA-approved research on the medicinal uses of marijuana. Prior to this week's ruling, organizations that had already written to DEA in favor of Prof. Craker's application included the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, the Lymphoma Foundation of America, the National Association for Public Health Policy, the United Methodist Church, Americans for Tax Reform, the American Medical Students Association, several state nurses' associations, the Massachusetts Dept. of Public Health, Massachusetts Senators Kerry and Kennedy, 38 members of the US House of Representatives, and the California and Texas State Medical Associations, the two largest US state medical associations.
Now, it is time to keep the pressure on.