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Judge rules government supply of marijuana is inadequate

WASHINGTON—Medical researchers need more marijuana sources because government supplies aren't meeting scientific demand, a federal judge has ruled.

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 opinion, and the Bush administration's anti-drug stance may make it unlikely that the grass-growing rules will loosen. Both sides can now file further 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.

Based in the California seaside town of Santa Cruz, the ACLU's Drug Law Reform Project has been representing University of Massachusetts scientist Lyle Craker. Since 2001, Craker has been confronting numerous bureaucratic and legal obstacles in his request for permission to grow research-grade marijuana.

An agronomist with a doctorate from the University of Minnesota, Craker was asked to grow bulk marijuana by a small, five-member group called the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. The psychedelic studies group wants to research such areas as developing vaporizers that can efficiently deliver pot smoke.

"This ruling is a victory for science, medicine and the public good," Craker said. "I hope that the DEA abides by the decision and grants me the opportunity to do my job unimpeded by drug war politics."

The latest research made public this week indicated that marijuana provided more pain relief for AIDS patients than prescription drugs did. The Bush administration quickly dismissed those findings as a "smokescreen," and it has remained hostile to Craker's research efforts.

During the trial, for instance, DEA attorneys secured an admission from Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies head Richard Doblin that he has smoked marijuana regularly since 1971.

"Can you tell us the source of this marijuana?" DEA attorney Brian Bayly asked Doblin, before withdrawing the question under objections.

The DEA originally claimed that it lost Craker's research application. Then the agency said that his photocopied follow-up lacked a necessary original signature. After a year, Craker tried again. He then had to wait another year before the DEA started processing the application, in which he proposed to grow about 25 pounds of marijuana in the first year.

Craker sued after the agency rejected his application. That brought his case before Bittner.

She oversaw the trial, which featured witnesses such as former California legislator John Vasconcellos.

"People have a right to know more about what might help them in their suffering and pain or illness, whatever it might be," Vasconcellos testified, in words repeated by Bittner. "The more research, the better."

The University of Mississippi has monopolized government-grade marijuana since 1968. The university also contracts with North Carolina's Research Triangle Institute, which runs a machine that can roll up to 1,000 finished marijuana cigarettes in an hour.

The government-grown pot is too "harsh" and filled with stems and seeds, researchers testified.

"The material was of such poor quality, we did not deem it to be representative of medical cannabis," researcher Dr. Ethan Russo said.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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