The Economist: Joint Action

Published March 1st 2007
From The Economist print edition

A victory for American cannabis researchers

FOR almost six years Lyle Craker, a researcher who studies medicinal plants at the University of Massachusetts, has been trying to grow pot. Quite a long time, one might think, for a professor of agronomy—his students, presumably, have far less trouble. The difficulty for Dr Craker, though, is that he would like to grow marijuana legally, but the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has so far refused to give him a licence.

Last month a judge appointed by the Department of Justice recommended that it would be in the public interest for Dr Craker to grow the drug. Mary Ellen Bittner said that the government’s monopoly on the legal growing of cannabis is hindering legitimate research and that there is a need for a second licensed facility to grow and supply it to authorised researchers.

Dr Craker’s case is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a not-for-profit group that supports research into the medicinal benefits of unapproved drugs. Lawyers for the groups argued that if cannabis is to be successfully licensed as a medicine by the Food and Drug Administration, a stable and secure supply is necessary. Moreover this supply is not available from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the only body licensed by the DEA to grow it.

The lawyers pointed to the case of Donald Abrams, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. He tried for many years to get cannabis from the national institute in order to conduct research on how it might help AIDS patients. This research was approved by all the necessary authorities—yet he was still refused cannabis. Later, when he changed his research to investigate whether it was dangerous for AIDS patients, his demand was supplied.

Why is there such resistance? The DEA declined to comment on the case because it is ongoing. However Allen Hopper, a senior attorney based in Santa Cruz who works for the American Civil Liberties Union, says that the reasons for the lack of supply are political rather than scientific.

Dr Craker’s fight is by no means over. The decision on whether he can have his licence still rests with the deputy administrator of the DEA. The agency’s decision must be as carefully argued as the judicial ruling. Even if it turns down Dr Craker’s application, he will be free to take the decision to a court of appeal.

The grass elsewhere is most certainly greener. The British government has encouraged research into cannabis medicines, with the result that a new drug, Sativex, based on an extract of cannabis, is now being used for the relief of nerve pain by multiple-sclerosis patients in Britain, Canada and Spain.

In January GW Pharmaceuticals, the British producer of Sativex, announced research which suggests that a version of the drug might relieve pain in conditions other than multiple sclerosis. Back in America, an article published last month in the journal Neurology showed that smoking cannabis relieved chronic HIV-associated nerve pain—a condition that is often impervious to other treatments.

For a long time many politicians in America have argued that cannabis has no proven medicinal value. At the same time, legitimate research has been hindered by supply problems. The only way to resolve whether marijuana has useful medical properties is to test it. The DEA should grant Dr Craker his licence.