Although Massachusetts is now the 18th state to allow the medical use of marijuana, scientists continue to grapple with understanding the properties of the drug and developing pot into medicine. Some researchers blame the federal government for blocking more study that could clarify marijuana's medicinal benefits. The federal government says marijuana has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, and it recently upheld marijuana's classification in the same category of drugs as heroin and LSD.
Lyle Craker is an agriculture professor at UMass Amherst who studies medicinal plants. For more than a decade, he's tried to get permission from the federal government to grow marijuana for medical studies. Rick Doblin is founder and director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, which is sponsoring Craker's efforts.
WBUR's Deborah Becker spoke with Craker and Doblin, who said that some 40 years after researchers first touted marijuana's medicinal benefits, they haven't been able to get very far.
Rick Doblin: Our goal is to try to develop the science that would enable the FDA to evaluate whether marijuana deserved to be a prescription medicine from Phase 3 large-scale studies, which have not been conducted yet.
Deborah Becker: There have been studies conducted that have shown that marijuana is beneficial in some cases.
Rick Doblin: Yes, there's been studies that are small pilot studies, Phase 2 studies. But they don't count for making marijuana into a prescription medicine.
Professor Craker, have you done any research thus far on marijuana and its potential medical properties?
Lyle Craker: No, absolutely not. That's illegal by federal law.
Have you grown any for research at this point, or been able to?
Lyle Craker: No, ma'am. That's illegal. No, I've never participated in any marijuana use or anything like that. This has to be done legally, completely, for it to have any valid type of information that will be available and stand up to scientific scrutiny.
Why get involved in this and try to grow marijuana for research?
Lyle Craker: When I first talked to Rick, I said to myself, "Well, this is just another plant material. We should be examining this, because it has supposedly some medicinal effects." I thought it would be just like any other plant: we'd get a license from the DEA to grow the material, and then it could go out to medical doctors to run clinical trials. I found out since it's not as easy as it looks.
It's my understanding that right now if you want to do research on marijuana that is federally sponsored research, it all comes from one place at the University of Mississippi, and it's a very strict set of rules for you to be able to do that. Is that what you're opposed to?
Lyle Craker: No, I'm not opposed to that. But what I'm opposed to is the monopoly. We need to have multiple sources so that we can get different types of grade, we can better grade marijuana onto the testing.
Rick Doblin: The source is really NIDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The University of Mississippi grows under contract to NIDA. They have a grant, a five-year grant. And then NIDA decides where their marijuana gets allocated.
They've actually claimed that they have over 100,000 grams. We've spent seven years trying to buy 10 grams for research with vaporizers. (Vaporizers heat the marijuana up; they don't burn it.) And we were rejected after seven years of effort.
We're working right now with MDMA, ecstasy, with post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans. And we're getting great results, and we have approval. We've got a marijuana PTSD protocol that has been approved by FDA and an institutional review board at the University of Arizona, and the public health service and NIDA have refused to supply us the marijuana.
Only marijuana has a single producer monopolized by the federal government, in the agency that has a vested interest in preventing research being done into the beneficial uses.
So Professor Craker has petitioned for permission to grow marijuana for research, and this case is still pending. Can you explain?
Rick Doblin: Starting in the year 2000, after I had had — MAPS had had two marijuana studies approved by FDA and rejected by NIDA, so we couldn't do them, I spent a year looking for the Rosa Parks of medical marijuana litigation. And I ended up finding Lyle.
2001 was the first submission that he made to the DEA for a license. In 2007, the DEA administrative law judge ruled that it would be in the public interest for Lyle to get a license. And the DEA administrator rejected the recommendation. And now we're in the appeals court, waiting for a ruling.
And that's in the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston?
Rick Doblin: Yes.
Professor Craker, what do you make of all of this?
Lyle Craker: Politics seems to rule, as opposed to science, and I feel myself as a scientist, which I think is a struggle for the truth. And I think what we need to find out is the truth about marijuana. Until we can actually grow the material, get some standardized plant material and be able to test it on human patients, we're kind of stuck here.
MAPS does advocate the use of some drugs. And some folks might say, "Well, you're just trying to get government approval for studies about drug use."
Rick Doblin: We're not trying to change the drug laws. We're trying to develop drugs as medicines. The concern that you're raising is: Are we biased? Do we have a self interest? And my response to that, because I do get that question a lot, is scientific methodology. That's what science is for. Everybody has their biases. And so we're trying to develop methodologically rigorous studies that are evaluated by FDA the same way they evaluate evidence for any other drug.
We asked for response from the DEA, and the agency referred us to court documents, which argue the government has both adequate quantity and quality of marijuana for research. NIDA — the National Institute on Drug Abuse — also tells us that between 1999 and 2011, it provided marijuana for 15 of the 18 FDA-approved medicinal marijuana studies proposed to the agency. None of those was a Phase 3 study, aimed at developing a medicine.
This program aired on February 21, 2013.