Reefer Madness

Judge Supports Bid to Grow Research Pot

A judge ruled that the U. of Massachusetts' Dr. Lyle Craker can grow marijuana for research, but the DEA may yet withhold approval. Photo courtesy of University of Massachusetts
A judge ruled that the U. of Massachusetts' Dr. Lyle Craker can grow marijuana for research, but the DEA may yet withhold approval. Photo courtesy of University of Massachusetts

It's been more than a year since the Drug Enforcement Administration's Department of Justice-appointed Administrative Law Judge Mary Ellen Bittner heard testimony regarding a University of Massachusetts professor's narco-thwarted attempt to get permission to grow a pot crop for use in government-approved research, but finally, on Feb. 12, Bittner released her opinion in support of Dr. Lyle Craker's request – the DEA, she opined, should let Craker cultivate a pot crop in his secured university lab. In an exhaustive 87-page opinion, Bittner concluded that there is a "minimal risk" that the pot would be diverted to the black market and that the government's current pot stash – grown at the University of Mississippi – is not sufficient to meet the needs of legitimate researchers.

While medi-pot supporters consider Bittner's opinion a victory in the struggle to validate marijuana's medicinal possibilities, the judge's findings are not binding. So whether Craker will actually be granted approval to cultivate a research crop still rests with DEA officials who haven't exactly embraced the idea that marijuana might actually be more than just dope. Reportedly, the DEA is still reviewing Bittner's opinion.

Craker originally filed an application to grow pot for use in Food and Drug Administration-approved research projects back in 2001 but was met with the sort of asinine bureaucratic delay that might make a lesser man stab a fork in his eye and run away screaming. For starters, Bittner writes in her opinion, Craker's application was rejected because he forgot to circle a single answer on the application form, per DEA instructions. Craker submitted another application – complete with said answer circled – but still, after three years of waiting – punctuated by glimmers of hope, like a DEA visit to the Amherst campus, to survey security at the possible grow site (which apparently passed muster) – the DEA denied his application. In sum, the agency concluded, Craker's request simply wouldn't be "consistent with the public interest."

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies – a nonprofit research outfit that aims to develop FDA-approved prescription drugs from controlled substances, like pot – and U. Mass' Medicinal Plant Program Director Craker cried foul, challenging the DEA's decision. Indeed, it seems that to the DEA, "public interest" means little more than maintaining a choke hold on pot prohibition – in this case, by helping stymie attempts to determine, scientifically, any benefits of using pot as medicine. There have been plenty of scientists weighing in on this recently – just last week the results of a groundbreaking study out of UC-San Francisco were published in the journal Neurology, reporting that medi-pot successfully alleviated neurological distress in HIV-positive patients with fewer side effects than experienced with prescription pharmaceuticals. Still, the feds haven't been too jiggy with these kinds of positive findings – for example, after asking the fed-funded scientist think tank the Institute of Medicine (an arm of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences) to "review" the science of medi-pot, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy sat on the results, which acknowledged the potential "therapeutic benefit" of medi-mari.

Moreover, some researchers and government-sanctioned medi-pot users (seven patients who participated in a defunct government pot study still get their medi-pot from the feds) have bemoaned the Ole Miss-grown pot as being inconsistent in quality – in part, because it contains far too many seeds and stems – and at least one sanctioned medi-mari user has complained that the stuff is too harsh to be effective. Others say the National Institute on Drug Abuse (the agency charged with actually doling out the dope) denies requests for access to the federal stash, whenever those requests come from researchers seeking the drug for use in medi-pot research studies, and in particular those studies that MAPS, and its admitted pot-smoking founder and President Rick Doblin, has sought to sponsor.

In all, Bittner concluded that the totality of the circumstances favored the approval of another source for government-controlled marijuana. It is a decision that Craker's supporters are calling a real victory: "This is a major step to getting us to do the scientific research that the government has been blocking for the past 30 years," Doblin told The Boston Globe. "If the government {DEA} says no, the hypocrisy of their approach will help fuel efforts for state medical marijuana reforms."

Naishtat Files Bill for Medi-Pot

Austin Democratic Rep. Elliott Naishtat on Feb. 15 filed HB 1534, which would create an affirmative defense to prosecution for pot possession by bona fide medicinal marijuana patients. The bill is a reprisal of HB 658, which Naishtat filed in 2005 with co-sponsors Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp, R-Lampasas, and former Austin GOP Rep. Terry Keel (just as that bill was a reprisal of a medi-mari bill Keel filed in 2001). The bill would put the onus on the patient defendant to prove their suffering – and that a doctor counseled about the use of medi-pot in order to alleviate said suffering – in order to enact the medi-mari defense, Naishtat said in a press release.

For sure, the bill is a far cry from medi-pot legalization, but it's a good, solid start. Indeed, as it stands, a medi-pot patient could raise a medical defense to pot-possession prosecution – such as the defense contemplated by Naishtat's bill – but there's no guarantee the court would allow it, which, to date, leaves patients vulnerable to the whims – and prejudices – of the criminal justice system.

HB 1534 would also ban law enforcement from initiating any "administrative, civil, or criminal investigation" of a licensed doctor on the ground that the "physician discussed marihuana as a treatment option with a patient" or "made a written or oral statement that, in the physician's opinion, the potential benefits of marihuana would likely outweigh the health risks for a particular patient." (The bill inserts a similar provision into the state's Occupations Code, to protect doctors from any disciplinary action related to counseling patients about medi-pot.)

There is "ample" evidence that medi-pot helps ease pain associated with cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, and neurological disorders, Naishtat notes, such as the Neurology study cited above. The Texas Medical Association has adopted a policy supporting the right of doctors to discuss all treatment options with their patients – including medi-pot – without fear of professional and/or criminal reprisal and numerous other organizations – including the American Nurses Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the New England Journal of Medicine – have endorsed medicinal pot use. In the 2004 Texas Poll, 75% of respondents said they'd support legislation to allow medi-mari use by seriously ill patients – so far 12 states have done just that. "It is clear to me that many patients and doctors feel the time has come for a full debate on this issue," Naishtat said.

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medical marijuana, Rick Doblin, MAPS, Mary Ellen Bittner, DEA, medi-pot, Lyle Craker, Elliott Naishtat, medi-pot, HB 1534

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