A Brief Interview with Prof. Lyle Craker

Lyle E. Craker is a professor of botany at the University of Massachusetts who has been trying to get permission from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to study marijuana since June, 2001. In December, 2004, his application was rejected. In a recent article in the local Amherst newspaper, The Republican, Craker was quoted as saying, “What we’re attempting to do is to test this plant to see if it actually has any clinical benefit.” This article caught my eye and I immediately called Prof. Craker for a brief interview.

Prof. Craker started the interview by emphatically denying that he supports marijuana use in general. He mentioned that he does not think that the drug should be legal for recreational purposes and that he is not an advocate for cannabis. Yet, Prof. Craker believes that there are probably some therapeutic aspects of marijuana and that this field of research needs to be revitalized. After all, eleven states presently recognize medical marijuana as a legitimate source of therapy and many more appear to be heading in that direction. The federal government officially regards medical marijuana as a hoax and it frequently overrides the states’ decisions on this matter. More research would only serve to advance knowledge of marijuana’s potentially therapeutic effects.

So, why would the DEA reject a seemingly legitimate application for studying the potential clinical uses of marijuana? Prof. Craker contends that the Drug War has made the DEA a “popular political force” which senses an obligation to protect society from the harm caused by drugs. Craker emphasizes his belief that the federal government does indeed have a legitimate role in protecting human beings and animals within the field of scientific research. However, despite his sympathy for the duties of the DEA, he finds this explanation to be rather unsatisfactory for denying an independent inquiry into the potential uses of a plant.

Craker’s interpretation of these events is that the government basically has “declared that research is not necessary.” On the contrary, research is imperative for understanding the potential medical value of the drug, which he sees as having popular political support among voters. Craker explains that marijuana has many different psychoactive components other than THC, and that potential therapeutic research would study the balance of constituents for optimizing beneficial effects. Though the government conducts limited research on the drug, Craker believes that “[drug] enforcement insists on low potency marijuana.” This undoubtedly affects any medical inquiry into the drug. Ironically, it just may be that more potent marijuana produces fewer negative reactions since less physical plant material must be consumed in order to achieve desired effects.

“Without the ability to grow or obtain high-grade materials for the study,” he says, “there cannot be a double-blind, independent study.” Ultimately, the DEA rejected his application to grow marijuana citing alleged problems with the physical make-up of his laboratory. According to Craker, when DEA agents examined his laboratory and the room in which he planned to grow marijuana, they expressed concern over the security of the plants:

“They thought that somebody would take a jack-hammer to the wall, break into the laboratory and steal the marijuana, and then there would be marijuana all over the streets of Amherst. I explained to them that there already is marijuana all over the streets of Amherst. It’s a college-town.” Unfortunately, Professor Craker could not simply agree to make the necessary changes to his laboratory because of the exorbitant cost in doing so. Craker explained that he planned on having a security guard for the laboratory anyway, but he simply could not get funds to reinforce the walls with concrete to prevent theoretical vandals from stealing the plants.

Another very interesting aspect of Craker’s study is that it would have examined the potential medical uses of marijuana when the plant is not smoked, but rather consumed orally. In “Speaking Out Against Drug Legalization,” a document put out by the DEA to counter drug reform efforts, the DEA claims:

There are no FDA-approved medications that are smoked. For one thing, smoking is generally a poor way to deliver medicine. It is difficult to administer safe, regulated dosages of medicines in smoked form. Secondly, the harmful chemicals and carcinogens that are byproducts of smoking create entirely new health problems.

Prof. Craker’s study would have examined the smokeless consumption of marijuana, thus eliminating these concerns. Yet, the application was still denied despite the unique method of studying the plant for therapeutic purposes. “What I don’t understand,” Craker said, “is why they won’t let us study the drug. If it has no beneficial uses, then fine. If there are, why not let us find out what those uses are and help people?”

Lastly, Prof. Craker mentioned that one factor may be drawing out this process unnecessarily long: his age. Craker suggests that because he is in his early sixties, the DEA is plausibly waiting for him to retire and drop the issue. This way, legitimate research can be postponed indefinitely. Again, this is not trickery, but to reiterate Craker’s earlier point, the DEA and its employees regard marijuana as a dangerous drug and they are simply doing their best to protect the human beings and animals involved in the study. Realistically, the actual reason that the DEA is weary of these kinds of studies is that any positive results can open the door for the drug becoming socially acceptable or tolerated. One way of preventing this from happening is by suppressing research on the drug. Professor Craker does not see the DEA’s actions as an inappropriate intrusion of government force because they are acting with the intent to protect individuals; he sees nothing malicious or conspiratorial with these events. However, considering the pharmacological information that we do have on marijuana, preventing legitimate medical studies of the drug seems arbitrary.

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