Clash over pot research gets personal

August 24, 2005

Michael Doyle, Sacramento Bee

The Bush administration is using hardball and ridicule this week as it fights efforts to expand medical marijuana research.

Former California legislator John Vasconcellos caught the ridicule, with derisive inquiries into his past work on self-esteem. Others faced hardball, with questions about their pot smoking. It's all part of a high-stakes fight as a reluctant Drug Enforcement Administration reconsiders a researcher's application to grow high-quality pot.

"We're the only people in America who can't get 10 grams of marijuana," research advocate Rick Doblin testified Wednesday.

The DEA's administrative law courtroom is far from the limelight, and only about one-quarter of the spectator seats were taken Wednesday afternoon. Still, the hearing that's likely to last several more weeks is the most important legal proceeding on the issue since the Supreme Court ruled in June that federal authorities can pursue medical marijuana users in California.

That 6-3 ruling in Gonzales v. Raich did not overturn the medical marijuana provisions approved in California and other states, but it did expose users to potential federal prosecution.

It's still unclear how aggressively U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales may pursue medical marijuana users. There's no question, though, that the administration disputes marijuana's potential worth as a medicine. That's what makes the new hearing so crucial, and it may also help explain some of the courtroom tactics.

After years of delay, the DEA's administrative law judge is being asked to help overturn the agency's rejection of a marijuana researcher's application first filed in 2001. University of Massachusetts plant physiologist Lyle Craker had sought approval to grow 25 pounds.

"We (look) at marijuana as we would do any other medicinal plant," Craker testified.

Craker said the limited marijuana now grown under federal supervision at a 12-acre University of Mississippi site is weak and filled with stems and seeds. Craker, the editor of the Journal of Herbs, Spices and Medicinal Plants, said his more potent pot would help test new vaporizers as a healthier means for patients to ingest the smoke.

The American Civil Liberties Union is supporting Craker's effort, as are several law firms working on a pro bono basis.

"We're not doing marijuana research because we can't seem to get marijuana," said Doblin, head of the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, "so we're spending money on litigation."

Drug enforcement officials reply that the University of Mississippi's inventory already contains some 1,500 kilograms of marijuana. Officials say that stash, combined with rolling machines that can crank out 1,000 marijuana cigarettes every minute, can more than meet existing research needs for a drug the government considers dangerous.

"Marijuana," the DEA said in court filings, "has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States."

The government's existing marijuana stocks supplied scientists, for instance, at the University of California Medical Cannabis Research Center. While in the state Senate, Vasconcellos drafted the bill creating the research center.

That's why Vasconcellos was called to testify on Craker's behalf this week, but that's not what DEA attorney Imelda Paredes wanted to ask him about.

Instead, in an apparent effort to undercut the former Democratic legislator's credibility, Paredes pressed Vasconcellos on the California self-esteem task force that finished its work 15 years ago.

"Haven't research studies shown that in academic terms, self-esteem curricula are worse than useless?" Paredes asked.

Paredes also noted Vasconcellos' place in a conservative author's book titled "One Hundred People Who Are Screwing Up America."

Vasconcellos' testimony ended shortly after he defended the self-esteem programs.

On Wednesday, DEA attorney Brian Bayley took a different tack with Doblin, by pressing him repeatedly about his own marijuana use. Over his lawyer's objections, Doblin acknowledged he had begun smoking marijuana in the early 1970s and still smokes it recreationally about once a week.

Bayley then asked him who he bought his pot from; at that point, the judge said the DEA had gone far enough.

The hearing will continue through Friday and then resume next month. The administrative law judge will make a recommendation but cannot order the DEA to grant the application.



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