Lyle Craker has never seen a live marijuana plant. But the medicinal plant and herb scientist, who has been a professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, for more than 35 years, has found himself in a haze of legal battles with the government for the chance to grow cannabis for US researchers.
Craker was first approached by cannabis advocate Rick Doblin in 2001 about helping to change the fact that for 37 years, the government has had a contract with just a single marijuana grower. Founder and president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), Doblin has been struggling since the early 1990s to successfully steer research on the medical benefits of marijuana through government regulations. In Craker, Doblin found his ideal scientific ally, whom he called a Rosa Parks for marijuana research: a tenured senior faculty member without ties to the movement for the legalization of marijuana and who had ?never smoked pot in his life.?
Though the drug has long been researched for its harmful physiological effects, it has more recently been touted for its potential medical benefits, for example: in reducing nausea in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, counteracting appetite suppression in patients with AIDS, and controlling the high internal eye pressure that can lead to glaucoma. A synthetic version of marijuana?s main bioactive ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is now the prescription drug Marinol.
MAPS and Craker want to grow and distribute their own marijuana for FDA-approved, privately funded research, because they say the government?s current supply, contracted out to be grown only by Mahmoud ElSohly at the University of Mississippi, is difficult to access, unavailable for potential pharmaceutical development, inconsistent in chemical make-up, and simply not strong enough to be useful for most research.
The majority of this current stock is grown outdoors. ElSohly acknowledges that variable weather conditions and the single growing season limits his control over the plants, but he calls critiques of their quality ?negative propaganda? that is ?very very false.? Between these crops and, recently, a few indoor plants, ElSohly says he can produce marijuana plants whose extracts include up to 40% THC by mass, and he can customize his cannabis to researchers? requests. Despite complaints from researchers, a single grower ?has been more than adequate to produce the marijuana needed for research purposes,? says Steve Gust, special assistant to the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which oversees distribution of research marijuana.
Craker thinks he can do better. ?I?ve been growing plants my entire life,? he says. ?Am I worried about being able to grow this plant? Not at all.? Craker says he would standardize the cannabis in a controlled environment, adjusting for factors such as day length and temperature to produce plants having greater and more consistent quantities of the bioactive cannabinoids, THC and cannabidiol. ?We?ve agreed to everything they?ve said about security: video camera, 24 hour guards. ? We?ve talked about accurate counting of every leaf.?
MAPS would provide the funding, Craker, the green thumb, and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), they hope, the necessary permit. But five years, one lost then rejected application, and two court appeals later, Craker and Doblin say they have been frustrated by intimidating official visits and unnecessary delays. ?People think we?re dumb to do it,? says Doblin, but others don?t. He has drummed up support from University of Massachusetts, Amherst, both Massachusetts senators, 38 US representatives who signed a letter to the DEA, and even the president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist. They are now awaiting the DEA judge?s decision in their latest appeal.
In the meantime, scientists like Jeffry Stock at Princeton University, who studies the anti-inflammatory effects of cannibinoids, can also order the individual chemicals from standard commercial sources such as Sigma-Aldrich. ?All of them are available in pure form, and it?s cheap,? he says. He notes that ?the FDA traditionally ? has only approved defined chemical substances as drugs.?
ElSohly has another solution: Craker ?needs to compete for the exact same contract the next time it comes around, and if he wins that contract, he will be the one doing this and I will not. The competition is there, it?s open.?