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January 16th, 2009
11:22 AM ET

Keeping the lid on pot

By Caleb Hellerman
CNN Medical Senior Producer

This week the Drug Enforcement Administration overruled one of its own administrative judges, nixing a plan that would break the government’s monopoly on legally growing marijuana for research purposes.

The rejected application came from Lyle Craker, a plant researcher at the University of Massachusetts. He wants to produce strains of pot that could be used in medical research. The jury is still out on this one. Some studies show that marijuana helps ease pain in patients with muscular dystrophy or the eye disease glaucoma; others find that pot restores the appetite of AIDS and cancer patients who are otherwise too nauseated to eat. But some doctors aren’t swayed. Still others say it would be better to distill one or more of the chemicals in marijuana, to produce a more traditional medicine.

As things stand, all marijuana used for research is grown by ElSohly Laboratories, a government-sponsored private company in Oxford, Mississippi. That gives the federal government veto power over any new study. The arrangement also discourages private companies from taking part. Rick Doblin, head of a group called the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which sponsored Craker’s application, told me, “No pharmaceutical company would spend ten  million dollars or more to obtain approval for a medicine and then have to purchase it from a monopolistic competitor.”

Doblin says the DEA decision is a parting shot by the Bush administration, a backhanded way to block further research. Unanswered is whether Barack Obama will take a different approach. During the campaign, he said he would stop federal raids on people using marijuana with a doctor’s prescription, but lately he’s shown a more cautious side. In December, in response to a popular question on his website, the incoming administration posted, simply, “President-elect Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana.”

I asked a spokesman in the Transition Press Office if Obama would support research like Craker’s. He couldn’t say.

Should the government allow more research on medical marijuana? Tell us.

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