For nearly a decade, University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Lyle Craker fought a losing legal battle with the Drug Enforcement Administration over his desire to grow weed. Craker, a specialist in plant medicine, wasn't even trying to smoke the stuff — he merely wanted to study it and help others do the same. Now he may finally get his chance.
Last week, the DEA announced that it plans to end the longstanding monopoly held by the University of Mississippi and the National Institute on Drug Abuse on the production of marijuana for medical and scientific research. Scientists have long complained that the supply of government-grown weed from Ole Miss is limited and subpar in quality, especially when compared to the vast and potent array of pot products now available to consumers in the 26 states where some form of the drug is now legal.
"It was a big step for them," Craker said of the DEA's decision. "They're becoming aware it needs to be examined — that's a complete philosophy change that's been recognized by them. I think they're on our side now, saying 'Let's take a look at this.'"
Craker's optimism is not shared by everyone. In interviews with VICE News, regulatory attorneys, advocates for marijuana research, and independent experts all expressed varying degrees of skepticism about the DEA's willingness to allow the meaningful study of marijuana.
"On its face, it's refreshing that they'll allow more research," said Hilary Bricken, a lawyer who specializes in the marijuana industry with the Seattle law firm Harris Moure. "But practically speaking, it'll be business as usual with the DEA.... They're still apt to reject all the applications they get."
DEA spokesperson Melvin Patterson said the agency hasn't yet received any applications to grow research weed, a process that he said involves providing "the global positioning of where you'll be growing the marijuana," along with a plan for "exactly how it's going to be secured." Patterson said there's no timeline for how long it will take to approve or reject new applications, but he maintained that the DEA is serious about letting scientists grow.
"It's not a publicity stunt," he said. "The only way to find out is to call us on it and apply."
Craker plans to do just that, though he said some officials at his university have been "somewhat reluctant" to move forward in light of the DEA's track record. The professor applied for a federal grow license in 2001 and eventually filed a lawsuit with support from Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The suit accused the DEA of obstructing marijuana research, and Craker won a victory in 2007 when a federal judge asked the DEA to grant his application, saying the government's pot supply was inadequate. The ruling was nonbinding, however, and the DEA refused to comply. Craker gave up the fight in 2011, tired of the legal wrangling.
Craker says he was "obviously disappointed" about getting blocked by the DEA, especially considering the subsequent proliferation of medical marijuana across the US. He pointed out that research on the drug is currently so scant that there's no definitive evidence different strains have different effects, let alone proof that weed is effective in treating any specific medical condition.
"Whether you want to buy mary jane or ghost dog something or other, I suspect they'll sell it to you," Craker said of medical dispensaries. "We need to catalog these materials so we can know if they're different. They could be vastly different or they could be all the same — until we get some material and take a look at it we don't know."
Beyond the lack of quality weed to study, another hurdle for researchers is that marijuana is still classified by the DEA as a Schedule I controlled substance, a category reserved for drugs with a "high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical use." Other drugs in the category include heroin and LSD. The classification means researchers face strict oversight and must hack through reams of red tape in order to do their work.
Ahead of last week's announcement about research grows, there was speculation that the DEA might move weed into a less restrictive classification. Instead, the DEA decided to keep marijuana Schedule I, saying there's "no evidence... that marijuana is safe and effective for use in treating a specific, recognized disorder."
Tom Angell, founder of the advocacy group Marijuana Majority, noted that the controversial scheduling decision was preceded by a story in the New York Times that quoted several unnamed officials commenting on the DEA's plan to allow more researchers to grow weed.
"If they had simply just blocked rescheduling, all the headlines would be about how the DEA is once again blocking research," Angell said. "Now they can hold up this small thing and say 'Oh, we kind of like research.'"
Angell added that while allowing more researchers like Craker to grow weed is undoubtedly positive, it could take years before any new studies are published. "Patients who are suffering right now and who could benefit from medical cannabis don't have years or decades to wait for more research to come."
John Hudak, an expert on marijuana policy at the Brookings Institution, has argued that the DEA's decision to expand the supply of research-grade marijuana is more important than rescheduling, but also says the current situation is a "classic catch-22." Scientists might now have better access to weed to study, but the Schedule I classification means it's still very hard to conduct the actual research. And without studies that definitively prove weed has legitimate medical applications, he explained, the drug will probably remain Schedule I.
Announcing the Schedule I ruling last week, acting DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg said, "If the scientific understanding about marijuana changes — and it could change — then the decision could change. But we will remain tethered to science, as we must, and as the statute demands."
Hudak said the DEA could keep marijuana Schedule I while easing restrictions on researchers, but right now the agency is choosing not to do that. "If DEA wanted, it could have it both ways, and right now it's not having it both ways," Hudak said.
Craker estimates that if he does ultimately get a DEA license to grow marijuana for research, it would take about a year for his operation to get up and running. "But the first thing we're going to do is have a party of some kind," he said.
After that, his ultimate goal is determining whether or not marijuana has medical value. And with enough quality weed available for research, that might finally be possible.
"Obviously, it's not going to cure every illness in the world," Craker said. "It might not cure any, for all I know, but I think it should be explored.... Then we can come out and say, 'Don't tell me you're taking it for hay fever, because it doesn't do anything there.'"
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton
Watch 'Inside America's billion-dollar weed business: The grass is greener'