New England Public Radio: As Medical Marijuana Arrives In Massachusetts, Scientists Stymied In Quest For Hard Data

New England Public Radio investigates the obstacles surrounding medical marijuana research in the United States. The report describes how the U.S. government’s Schedule I classification of marijuana interferes with scientific research, explains the strenuous federal approval process to conduct a study of medical marijuana, and features an interview with Professor Lyle Craker about his previous work with MAPS attempting to receive federal permission to grow a new supply of research-grade marijuana.

Originally appearing here.


States like Massachusetts have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes, but it’s still classified by the federal government as a schedule 1 drug, along with heroin and LSD. That means it’s considered to have high abuse potential and is not recognized for any medical uses.

RELATED: An Archive Of Weed Activism Arrives At UMass

So it’s tricky to study the actual health benefits of the plant. Advocates for marijuana reform met on the UMass campus Monday, and are hoping to build momentum to make the drug easier to study.

About 15 years ago, UMass Amherst agricultural professor Lyle Craker was approached by colleagues who wanted him to supply the cannabis plant for their medical study. He knew it would be a challenge to get a federal permit to grow marijuana, since only the University of Mississippi has a federally-sanctioned growing facility. But he decided to take it on. He started with the Drug Enforcement Agency, which sent agents to his office on campus several times.

“They had a lot of questions. Where we were going to grow it, for example,” Craker says. “They tried to indicate the the administration that we were going to become known as a place where marijuana was rampant on campus.”

When the university administration said they supported the research anyway, Craker says, federal agents told him he’d have to follow a number of onerous rules.

“They talked about 24-hour guards. They talked about…video cameras – inside and outside the room where I was going to grow it, the closed room,” he says. “A lot of things like that  we…could always overcome.”

But after about a decade of back and forth, the DEA turned down Craker’s request. His team appealed to a court of appeals in Boston and lost that case.

Researchers across the U.S. can apply to use the marijuana grown at the University of Mississippi, but getting approval is not easy, and Craker and others question the quality and variety of strains that’re available.

Craker has since moved onto other research , but many others are still pushing the issue. Melanie Dreher, a former dean of the UMass nursing school, attended the drug policy forum Monday.

“There’s plenty of research going on in the world on marijuana,” Dreher says. “It’s in Israel and Sweden and Canada and England Italy and Spain” – as well as Jamaica, where Dreher first studied marijuana in the ’60s. “And yet we can’t seem to get the public will to support marijuana research in this country.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse, the federal agency that approves the use of marijuana for research, does list on its website a number of projects it funds — mostly on the harms of marijuana, but also some potential therapeutic benefits for pain and addiction.

Dreher says more diversified research would supplement mountains of anecdotal evidence that marijuana can help with symptoms of Multiple sclerosis, chemotherapy, epilepsy and other disorders.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, says better science would also help debunk some overblown claims. He says he recently met a family who bought marijuana-laced oils to cure their son’s cancer.

“And they had no scientific information indicating how they were made, where they were made, from what the active ingredients were,” St. Pierrie says. “And I think that they probably wasted $13,000 and did not bring any medical relief to their son, who passed on.”

St. Pierre says research has progressed in the last few years, including a series of federally sanctioned studies at the University of California Irvine.

Still, his organization is pushing for marijuana to move into a less stringent drug category, such as Schedule 2, where cocaine and morphine are. He does not expect Congress to do that, but he does hold out one long-shot hope: an executive order from President Obama before he leaves office.