ACLU: DEAs Politics Are Keeping Cannabis-Based Medicines Off Shelves

Originally appearing at The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) does not commonly take an active role in matters pertaining to the drug war, but in the case of Dr. Lyle E. Craker, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, outspoken is certainly one way to describe their position. Craker’s name might sound familiar to keen observers of the drug war. After a decade of waging a hard-fought battle with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which repeatedly denied his application for the production of medical marijuana, he recently said he would call it quits, resigning his fight in bitter defeat. The last DEA ruling against him came in January 2009, and contradicted the recommendation of DEA Administrative Law Judge Mary Ellen Bittner. His appeal of that decision languished for so long that last week, he and attorneys with the ACLU decided to drop the case. “I’m disappointed in our system,” the 70-year-old professor told the Associated Press last week. “But I’m not disappointed at what we did. I think our efforts have brought the problem to the public eye more. … This is just the first battle in a war.” On Monday evening, the ACLU released its final brief on Craker’s case, which calls on the DEA to grant research permits for the production of medical cannabis. They also flatly state that cannabis medicines have not yet cleared the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is because of the DEA’s pernicious politics and tight monopoly on the granting of production licenses. “The federal government’s official policy is that marijuana has no medical benefit,” they noted. “But the government is unwilling to put its policy to the test of science: instead, the government exercises monopoly control over the nation’s supply of marijuana that may be used for scientific purposes, by allowing an agency whose mission is to explore the consequences of the abuse of marijuana—the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)—to determine what research may go forward regarding marijuana’s beneficial medical uses. The result is that […] marijuana alone out of all potential medicines is subject to a special and obstructive process that places politics over science.” Currently, the DEA has the marijuana plant as a “Schedule I” drug: a classification reserved for street drugs like heroin with no real medicinal value. However, the agency recently reclassified the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, the chemical compound THC, to “Schedule III,” thereby allowing pharmaceutical companies to begin producing cannabis-based drugs. The move was criticized by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) as the height of hypocrisy. The group suggested the DEA was merely legalizing marijuana for big business to repackage and resell at exorbitant prices, while keeping penalties in place for anyone who grows the plant itself. Thanks to the reclassification of the drug and not the plant, major pharmaceutical companies will soon be able to purchase synthesized THC from a government-licensed producer. Research on the drug’s source, however — the actual cannabis plant — remains forbidden. And therein lies the problem, Craker’s attorneys at the ACLU wrote. “NIDA’s monopoly, created by DEA’s refusal to license any additional bulk manufacturer, has resulted in a dearth of privately-funded medical marijuana research for over 40 years. Until DEA ends the NIDA monopoly by registering another bulk manufacturer, such as Dr. Craker, to produce marijuana for privately-funded researchers, there cannot be an adequate and uninterrupted supply of marijuana for research intended to obtain FDA approval of marijuana as a prescription medicine.” As a candidate for the U.S. Senate, President Barack Obama said he was in favor of eliminating the most stringent criminal penalties for marijuana possession, but has maintained that he does not support outright legalization. In a recent interview, the director of the Office on National Drug Control Policy said that prescription pills are by far the nation’s largest drug problem, and warned that if marijuana were legal, more people might use it. Currently, 15 states and the District of Colombia allow marijuana to be prescribed as medicine. The ACLU’s full brief was available online (PDF). This article reports on the lawsuit that MAPS, the ACLU, and Professor Lyle Craker have been fighting against the DEA for nearly ten years to break the federal government’s monopoly on the supply of marijuana for research. While many of the details are accurate–particularly the point that the DEA’s refusal to break the NIDA monopoly is keeping medicines out of the hands of patients–the article incorrectly claims that Craker and the ACLU are dropping the case. On March 7, Craker’s lawyers filed their final brief with the DEA, and are waiting to hear back from the DEA before deciding how to move forward. The mistaken claims originated in an AP wire story (“UMass professor drops bid to grow medical pot,” March 4, 2011) but were corrected in a March 8 MAPS press release.