Lyle Craker is an unlikely advocate for any political cause, let alone one as touchy as marijuana law, and that’s precisely why Rick Doblin sought him out almost two decades ago. Craker, Doblin likes to say, is the perfect flag bearer for the cause of medical marijuana production—not remotely controversial and thus the ideal partner in a long and frustrating effort to loosen the Drug Enforcement Administration’s chokehold on cannabis research. There are no counterculture skeletons in Craker’s closet; only dirty boots and botany books. He’s never smoked pot in his life, nor has he tasted liquor. “I have Coca-Cola every once in a while,” says the quiet, white-haired Craker, from a rolling chair in his basement office at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he’s served as a professor in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture since 1967, specializing in medicinal and aromatic plants. He and his students do things such as subject basil plants to high temperatures to study the effects of climate change on what plant people call the constituents, or active elements.
Craker first applied for a license to grow marijuana for medicinal research in 2001, at the urging of Doblin, the founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies(MAPS), a nonprofit that advocates for research on therapeutic uses for LSD, MDMA (aka Ecstasy), marijuana, and other psychedelic drugs. Doblin, who has a doctorate in public policy, makes no secret of his own prior drug use. He’s been lobbying since the 1980s for federal approval for clinical research trials on various psychedelics, and he saw marijuana as both a promising potential medicine and an important front in the public-relations war. Since 1970 marijuana has been a DEA Schedule I substance, meaning that in the view of the federal government, it’s as dangerous as LSD, heroin, and Ecstasy, and has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
By that definition, pot—now legal for medicinal use by prescription in 29 states and for recreational use in eight—is more dangerous and less efficacious in the federal government’s estimation than cocaine, oxycodone, or methamphetamine, all of which are classified Schedule II. Scientists and physicians are free to apply to the Food and Drug Administrationand DEA for trials on Schedule I substances, and there are labs with licenses to produce LSD and Ecstasy for that purpose, but anyone who seeks to do FDA-approved research with marijuana is forced to obtain the plants from a single source: Uncle Sam. Specifically, since 1968 the DEA has allowed only one facility to legally cultivate marijuana for research studies, on a 10-acre plot at the University of Mississippi, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and managed by the Ole Miss School of Pharmacy.
The NIDA license, Doblin says, is a “monopoly” on the supply and has starved legitimate research toward understanding cannabinoids, terpenes, and other constituents of marijuana that seem to quell pain, stimulate hunger, and perhaps even fight cancer. Twice in the late 1990s, Doblin provided funding, PR, and lobbying support for physicians who wanted to study marijuana—one sought a treatment for AIDS-related wasting syndrome, the other wanted to see if it helped migraines—and was so frustrated by the experience that he vowed to break the monopoly. That’s what led him to Craker.
In June 2001, Craker filed an application for a license to cultivate “research-grade” marijuana at UMass, with the goal of staging FDA-approved studies. Six months later he was told his application had been lost. He reapplied in 2002 and then, after an additional two years of no action, sued the DEA, backed by MAPS. By this point, both U.S. senators from Massachusetts had publicly supported his application, and a federal court of appeals ordered the DEA to respond, which it finally did, denying the application in 2004.
Craker appealed that decision with backing from a powerful bench of allies, including 40 members of Congress, and finally, in February 2007, a DEA administrative law judge ruled that his application for a license should be granted. The decision was not binding, however; it was merely a recommendation to the DEA leadership. Almost two years later, in the last week of the Bush administration, the application was rejected. Craker threw up his hands. He firmly believed marijuana should be more widely grown and studied, but he’d lost any hope that it would happen in his lifetime. And he had basil to attend to.
Then, in August 2016, during the final months of the Obama presidency, the DEA reversed course. It announced that, for the first time in a half-century, it would grant new licenses.
Doblin, who has seemingly endless supplies of optimism and enthusiasm, convinced the professor there was hope—again. So Craker submitted paperwork, again, along with 25 other groups. The university’s provost co-signed his application, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) wrote a letter to the DEA in support of his effort.
He’s still waiting to hear back. “I’m never gonna get the license,” Craker says.
Pessimism isn’t surprising from a man who’s been making a reasonable case for 17 years to no avail. Studies around the world have shown that marijuana has considerable promise as a medicine. Craker says he spoke late last year at a hospital in New Hampshire where certain cannabinoids were shown to facilitate healing in brain-damaged mice. “And I thought, ‘If cannabinoids could do that, let’s put them in medicines!’ ” He sighs. “We can’t do the research.”
Another sigh. “I’m naive about a lot about things,” he says. “But it seems to me that we should be looking at cannabis. I mean, if it’s going to kill people, let’s know that and get rid of it. If it’s going to help people, let’s know that and expand on it. … But there’s just something wrong with the DEA. I don’t know what else to say. … Somehow, marijuana’s got a bad name. And it’s tough to let go of.”