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Putting pot under the microscope

The attorney general should heed calls to end the DEA's obstruction of serious research into the medicinal value of marijuana.

March 10, 2009

At the heart of the debate about marijuana's medicinal value is a dearth of academic research into its therapeutic properties. For 40 years, the federal government has frustrated such study by restricting cultivation of marijuana for research to a single source, the University of Mississippi. Most recently, the Bush administration denied the application of a well-regarded botanist at the University of Massachusetts to establish another cultivation facility, despite a ruling by an administrative law judge determining that it should go forward.

For eight years, professor Lyle Craker has struggled to obtain a license from the Drug Enforcement Administration to grow research-grade cannabis. His proposal is to supply marijuana to DEA-approved researchers who have undergone a rigorous review and approval process by the U.S. Public Health Service, and whose protocols have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The DEA, however, has behaved as if this serious scientist wants to start a backyard plot for campus parties.

In February 2007, after nine days of testimony from expert witnesses and administration officials, light broke through the DEA's bureaucratic murk: Administrative Law Judge Mary Ellen Bittner issued an 87-page opinion saying that the supply of marijuana from the University of Mississippi is insufficient in quality and quantity and that Craker's project should go forward. In a case study of governmental intransigence, the DEA dithered for two years. Then, a few days before the Obama administration took power, acting Administrator Michele Leonhart issued a final order denying Craker's application.

Members of Congress have urged Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to amend or overrule the order, and he should do so. Then he should go further and change the culture of the agency. Instead of thwarting the advancement of science, the DEA should encourage cannabis research. As California and the U.S. government continue to debate the future of medical marijuana, what we need is a body of work on the drug's efficacy in treating a variety of illnesses and conditions. Instead, we have a collection of small studies and individual testimony. On Monday, President Obama signed a "scientific integrity presidential memorandum" and promised that his administration would base its public policies on science, not politics; the DEA is one of many federal agencies ready for enlightenment.

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