Dec 15 2004 / News / Local / Mass. / No room to grow

Posted by J. Craig Canada in cultivation, lyle craker, research
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No room to grow

The Boston Globe
By Eileen McNamara, Globe Columnist
December 15, 2004

Professor Lyle E. Craker teaches his students that what we know of the medicinal benefits of plants comes from tradition, myth, and science and that, of these, science is the most valued because of its emphasis on verification.

He might want to rethink that lecture, at least for the duration of the ideologically driven Bush administration.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration just rejected an application from the University of Massachusetts plant physiologist for a license to grow marijuana to be used in clinical trials to assess its medicinal uses. Granting the license to the leader of the university’s Amherst-based Laboratories for Natural Products, Medicinal and Aromatic Plants “would not be consistent with the public interest,” the DEA’s letter of Dec. 10 to the professor declared.

Craker does not want to smoke the marijuana with his students; he wants to grow it for independent medical research that would have to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration. How can research not be in the interest of a public confused by competing claims of the dangers of marijuana and anecdotal evidence of its ameliorating effect on some medical conditions?

“I am paid by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to do science and that is what I do,” said Craker. “Our goal would be to grow this plant material to help others verify whether it helps glaucoma patients or relieves the suffering of chemotherapy and AIDS patients. Otherwise, we are left with tradition and myths. Tradition gives us leads to follow, but what we lack is the science. I would think it would be a win-win situation, whatever the science reveals, to settle the argument.”

The DEA, he suspects, refused to distinguish between illegal recreational use of marijuana and scientific use of the same plant. “We are disappointed, of course,” he said. “If we have a plant material that can help people, I would have hoped the DEA would be interested in seeing more clinical trials go forward. There are plenty of legal drugs on the market that can be dangerous if misused, yet we still use them as medicine.”

At present, the University of Mississippi operates the only government-licensed program to grow marijuana for research use. The DEA maintains that it produces an adequate supply for medical researchers, a contention that Craker said would be challenged by some researchers who have found Mississippi’s marijuana too weak to be of much use. Noting that independence and verification are key scientific principles, Craker said it makes sense to have more than one source produce marijuana for research.

Craker’s greenhouses teem with a wide variety of plants cultivated by faculty researchers and the 300 or more students who pass through his four courses on medicinal plants each year. Twenty-five to 30 percent of modern drugs, he noted, are derived from plants. The road to the pharmacy often begins in labs such as his. He is involved, for example, in the collection and study of black cohosh, a perennial plant thought to relieve hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms. Medical research is in an early stage.

“Black cohosh is in limited cultivation in the United States so we collect it in the wild and compare samples, map out the location of the plant material, study its leaf shape, size, chemistry to see which has the highest level of bioactive ingredients,” he said. The goal of those trips to Tennessee and West Virginia and Ohio is to determine which plant is best suited to cultivation. It’s not glamorous, Craker conceded; it’s science.

The university has 30 days to appeal the DEA rejection of his request to grow marijuana, and though that decision “is in the hands of the lawyers,” Craker said science demands that the ruling be challenged. “You can’t let things rest where they are,” he said. “If we did, science would never move forward.”

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

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