MAPS and medical marijuana advocates won a major victory against the federal government this week, as the DEA's administrative law judge ruled on behalf of Professor Lyle Craker, who is attempting to break the government's 65-year monopoly on marijuana research by establishing a MAPS-sponsored research-grade marijuana production facility at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
In an emphatic but nonbinding opinion, the Drug Enforcement Administration's own judge is recommending that a University of Massachusetts professor be allowed to grow a legal pot crop. The real winners could be those suffering from painful and wasting diseases, proponents believe.
'The existing supply of marijuana is not adequate,' Administrative Law Judge Mary Ellen Bittner ruled.
The federal government's 12-acre marijuana plot at the University of Mississippi provides neither the quantity nor quality scientists need, researchers contend. While Bittner didn't embrace those criticisms, she agreed that the system for producing and distributing research marijuana is flawed.
'Competition in the manufacture of marijuana for research purposes is inadequate,' Bittner determined.
Bittner further concluded that there is 'minimal risk of diversion' from a new marijuana source. Making additional supplies available, she stated, 'would be in the public interest.'
The DEA isn't required to follow Bittner's 88-page advice, and the Bush administration's anti-drug stance will probably avoid that the laws for grass-growing loosen. Both sides can now gather more information before DEA administrators make their ruling.
'We could still be months away from a final decision,' DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney said Tuesday, adding that 'obviously, we're going to take the judge's opinion into consideration.'
Still, the ruling is resonating in labs and with civil libertarians.
'(The) ruling is an important step toward allowing medical marijuana patients to get their medicine from a pharmacy just like everyone else,' said Allen Hopper, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
A research report that was published this week indicated that marijuana provides more pain relief for AIDS patients than prescription drugs do. In a five-day study performed in a specially ventilated hospital ward where patients smoked three marijuana cigarettes a day, more than half the participants tallied significant reductions in pain.
By contrast, less than one-quarter of those who smoked 'placebo' pot, which had its primary psychoactive ingredients removed, reported benefits, as measured by subjective pain reports and standardized neurological tests.
The White House belittled the study as 'a smoke screen', short on proof of efficacy and flawed because it did not consider the health impacts of inhaling smoke.
But other doctors and advocates of marijuana policy reform said the findings, in today's issue of the journal Neurology, offer powerful evidence that the Drug Enforcement Administration's classification of cannabis as having 'no currently accepted medical use' is outdated.
'This should be a wake-up call for Congress to hold hearings to investigate the therapeutic use of cannabis and to encourage more research,' said Barbara T. Roberts, a former interim associate deputy director in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, now with Americans for Safe Access, which promotes access to marijuana for therapies and research.
Countless anecdotal reports have suggested that smoking marijuana can help relieve the pain, nausea and muscular spasticity that often accompany cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other ailments. But few well-controlled studies have been conducted.
The new study enrolled 50 AIDS patients with severe foot pain caused by their disease or by the medicines they take.
The team first measured baseline pain, both subjectively (patients ranked their pain on a scale of 1 to 100) and with two standardized tests, one involving a small hot iron held to the skin and another involving hot chili pepper cream.
Then, for five days, patients lit up at 8 a.m., 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. using a calibrated puff method that calls for inhaling for five seconds, holding one's breath for 10, then waiting 45 seconds before the next. The Bush administration quickly dismissed those findings as a 'smokescreen', and it has remained hostile to Craker's research efforts.