During November's Supreme Court oral arguments in Raich v. Gonzalez (formerly Raich v. Ashcroft), the case challenging the federal government's ability to intervene in states where medical marijuana is legal, Justice Stephen Breyer suggested that patients ask the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to reclassify marijuana for medicinal use. That would be "the obvious way to get what they want," said Breyer. "Medicine by regulation is better than medicine by referendum," he added.
But the federal government has long stalled efforts to reclassify marijuana and has obstructed attempts by researchers to do studies that could lead to the development of marijuana as a legal prescription medicine. Now, in a case involving a University of Massachusetts scientist who has fruitlessly sought DEA permission to grow medical marijuana for research purposes for the past three years, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and the American Civil Liberties Union Drug Law Reform Project are seeking a hearing from a DEA administrative law judge that would allow the research to move forward.
"Doctors and patients would like to take Justice Breyer up on his proposal during oral arguments in Raich to develop marijuana as a medicine through the FDA approval process," said ACLU staff attorney Alan Hopper. "Justice Breyer calls for 'medicine by regulation,' but the government's idea of 'regulation' is to obstruct research."
Under federal law, the federal government has a monopoly on the supply of marijuana available for research, which comes from the National Institute on Drug Abuse's (NIDA) Mississippi pot farm. All other controlled substances are provided to researchers by DEA-licensed laboratories. But scientists seeking to study the medicinal effects of marijuana with the goal of trying to turn it into FDA-approved prescription medicine have been blocked at every turn.
Seeking to get around the research marijuana roadblock, in 2001 UMass researcher Dr. Lyle Cracker went to the DEA to win approval for a marijuana researcher production facility to be sponsored by MAPS. For three years, the DEA failed to act. Only when Craker and MAPS filed a lawsuit against the DEA last year was the agency spurred to act, and it did so by denying Craker's petition in December. Now, Craker and MAPS have been joined by the ACLU as they appeal the DEA ruling before a DEA administrative law judge. A hearing in the case is expected sometime this summer.
"The public has a right to know about possible health effects of marijuana and whether this plant material has any medicinal value," said Craker at a Monday press conference. "Only through unobstructed medical research can doctors and scientists determine the value of marijuana in treating human afflictions. My job is to make plant material available for research, and the refusal of the DEA to allow me to grow marijuana for medical research prevents a full investigation of the potential health benefits of the plant material."
MAPS president Rick Doblin criticized the government's "heavy-handed policies" and urged the DEA to stop obstructing research. "We are frustrated with the DEA's red tape and the federal government's heavy-handed policies that stifle our research," said Doblin. "Drug war politics should not obstruct our pharmaceutical development process, especially when it comes to researching drugs with the potential to reduce chronic suffering and reduce the negative side effects of life-saving medicines."
In papers filed last Friday, the ACLU said that NIDA discriminates against scientists who seek to study marijuana's efficacy and safety. Such research clashes with NIDA's mission to study only the harmful effects of drugs, the group argued.
"We have joined in representing Dr. Cracker because we believe scientists and researchers should be able to pursue the truth about all drugs," said the ACLU's Hopper. "The public has a right to know the truth, and sick people have the right to safely access the medicines they need. We need further research to turn medical marijuana into a safe, affordable, and predictable treatment, but the government has created a catch-22. They always say we need more research, but at the same time they block it. The government is placing ideology above the health and safety of patients," he added.
Researchers need alternatives to the NIDA weed not only because of bureaucratic roadblocks but also because the government-supplied marijuana is of low quality, said medical marijuana patient Phillip Alden. "I've been using marijuana for the past eight years to combat nerve pain," Alden said. "My doctor wanted to do a clinical study involving medical marijuana, and I was the first patient to qualify. But the marijuana we got from the government was freeze dried, which destroys the THC-bearing crystals. The government pot tasted terrible. It was very harsh and contained seeds and stems."
The government weed was so bad, said Alden, he was forced to resign from the research project. "I had to stop smoking the high-quality product I got from the cannabis clubs and smoke a lot of government-grown marijuana every day," he explained. "But I had to drop out because the harsh NIDA weed gave me bronchitis."
"This is a classic market failure," said MAPS' Doblin. "No pharmaceutical company is interested in developing marijuana as a medicine without a dependable supply. Major research foundations are not funding this, no sponsor is trying to make marijuana into a prescription medicine. Right now, we're stuck. We can't buy it, we can't import it, we can't subcontract out for it, we can't grow our own. MAPS is willing to sponsor this research, but the DEA is putting politics over science. They fear the results of the science."