Judge Sides with Botanist on Pot Supply

San Francisco Chronicle

Judge sides with botanist on pot supply

By: Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer

Tuesday, 13 February 2007
page B – 8


A Massachusetts botanist should be allowed to grow marijuana for medical study, a hearing officer said Monday in a ruling that would end a longtime government requirement that all federally approved researchers get their pot supplies from the University of Mississippi.

Because of the monopoly arrangement, in effect since 1968, “there is currently an inadequate supply of marijuana available for research purposes,” said Mary Ellen Bittner, a Drug Enforcement Administration administrative law judge. She said the application by Lyle Craker, a University of Massachusetts professor of plant biology, “would be in the public interest.”

The ruling is actually only a recommendation to the DEA, which supports the current policy. Agency spokesman Garrison Courtney said a deputy administrator would make the final decision after reviewing arguments from lawyers for the DEA staff and for Craker. The agency’s decision could be appealed to a federal court in Washington, D.C.

“It’s going to be a hard case to win,” said Anjuli Verna of the American Civil Liberties Union’s drug law reform project, which represents Craker. She said the court could overturn a DEA veto of Bittner’s ruling only if it was found that the agency was acting arbitrarily.

Currently, all researchers on marijuana in the United States must obtain licenses and get their drug supplies from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which has had an exclusive contract with the University of Mississippi for more than 38 years.

The government and the university project overseer say they supply high-quality marijuana, with varying potencies, to all researchers with a legitimate need, and currently provide the drug to nearly 500 patients in clinical trials. An exclusive contract is necessary, the DEA contends, to prevent diversion of the “most heavily abused” of drugs in the government’s list of dangerous substances.

But the ACLU’s Verna said many researchers have complained that the Mississippi marijuana is “very low-grade, low-potency,” requiring increased usage — with potential health problems — to get the desired effect.

“Research is simply stymied,” Verna said. She said government-approved researchers in other drugs, such as LSD and cocaine, can get their supplies from a number of laboratories.

Bittner said in her ruling that the quality of the government-supplied marijuana was “generally adequate,” despite some problems. But she said some researchers with approved projects have been unable to obtain marijuana because of the federal policy. She also found little risk that marijuana grown by Craker would be diverted to illegal uses.

Craker’s application, first filed in 2001, was sponsored by an organization called the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which proposed to fund his indoor cultivation and provide the marijuana to federally approved researchers. Both of Massachusetts’ senators, Democrats Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, have written to the DEA in support of Craker.

The agency turned Craker down in 2003, saying there was no need for additional research supplies.

E-mail Bob Egelko at begelko@sfchronicle.com.

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