Days before President Bush left office in January, his administration fired a parting shot at Professor Lyle Craker's eight-year quest to cultivate marijuana for medical research by abruptly denying him a federal license despite a nearly two-year old Drug Enforcement Administration law judge's recommendation that he receive one.
But the new administration led by President Obama, who has publicly backed the use of marijuana for medical purposes to stave off pain, might reverse the decision and keep Craker's license application from going up in smoke.
A source familiar with the case said the White House will likely demand that the decision be reviewed.
"Basically they want to do an autopsy of what occurred and have it go through a proper review," the source said.
Craker, who is based at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, is cautiously optimistic Obama will do to the denial of the marijuana license what he has done to other Bush administration decisions on such hot-button cultural issues as embryonic stem-cell research and the abortion "gag rule" affecting overseas family planning groups.
"Obama has indicated that he's for science over politics," Craker said in an interview. "And I certainly feel the situation we have currently is politics over science."
Just last week, Obama called for the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to "develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making."
"The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions," Obama wrote. "Public officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions."
On the issue of medicinal marijuana, Obama said at a November 2007 campaign stop in Iowa that he was open to allowing its use if it is what science and physicians suggest would be the best way to ease suffering.
"There's no difference between that and morphine when it comes to just giving people relief to pain," Obama said then.
Administration officials familiar with Craker's application for a DEA license to grow the plant would not comment on the case.
Last month, 16 House members wrote Attorney General Holder asking him to amend or withdraw the DEA's final order on Craker's application so the president's new head of DEA could review the application. They wrote that the administrative law judge's decision "left no doubt" that Craker is qualified to cultivate marijuana for research purposes.
The members, led by Rep. John Olver, D-Mass., said they were concerned the Bush administration's ruling violated the "spirit" of a Jan. 20 memorandum from White House Chief of Staff Emanuel that essentially froze all "11th hour" final orders. The memo distributed shortly after the inauguration asked agency officials to reconsider final rules and regulations that have been published in the Federal Register, but have yet to take effect.
Craker's battle with the Bush administration began in 2001, when he applied for a federal license to become a bulk manufacturer of marijuana and establish a privately funded facility at his university for DEA- and FDA-approved marijuana research.
His application posed a challenge to a decades-long monopoly enjoyed by the University of Mississippi as the country's only legal producer of marijuana for medical research, a program started in 1968 and overseen by the National Institute on Drug Abuse since 1974.
A longtime backer, Senate Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran, funneled $3.5 million in earmarked funds to the university's National Center for Natural Products Research, which is housed in a building that bears his name, in the FY09 omnibus spending bill.
His press secretary said this week that, as an Ole Miss alumnus, Cochran is proud to have the center in his state, and that the decision on any other license is "up to DEA."
In 2007, a DEA administrative law judge issued a non-binding recommendation in favor of granting Craker a license, saying NIDA's Mississippi-grown supply provided to approved scientists was insufficient for the research marijuana merits. Despite letters of support from 45 House members and Massachusetts Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, then-DEA Administrator Karen Tandy and her successor, acting Administrator Michele Leonhart, made no decision on the license application for more than a year.
But less than a week before Bush left the Oval Office, Leonhart issued a final order denying Craker's application, aiming to close the books on a case that lasted nearly as long as Bush's tenure in office. She set Feb. 13 as the final order's effective date.
The timing led Craker and Allen Hopper, who heads a legal team provided by the American Civil Liberties Union, to assume the decision was politically motivated. Administrative law judges usually are nonpartisan "technocrats" who examine cases from legal and rational points of view, Hopper said.
"But when you get to [the] level of DEA administrator, that's a political appointment," he said.
The source familiar with the case agreed the decision was "entirely political."
"It just seems it was rushed on ideological grounds," this source said.
Craker said one reason Leonhart did not favor granting him a license was concern it would set off a rush of license applications from researchers seeking to grow their own.
"I think our case is dynamite in a logjam," Craker said. "Once something like this is broken, it's kind of hard to put it back together."
Since the final order, Hopper has filed a motion to reconsider and has asked for a hearing to present witnesses and evidence that can refute Leonhart's arguments.
Meanwhile, four days before the Feb. 13 effective date of the order denying a license to Craker, Leonhart, who is still DEA's acting chief but now reports to Obama, extended the date to April 1.
Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney, who fielded questions about marijuana licensing, said the date was pushed back because Craker's legal team asked for an extension to file supplemental evidence. She said it was not in response to Emanuel's Jan. 20 memo.
Much of the outcome hinges on the fact that Obama has not yet nominated someone to lead the DEA. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., who co-signed the letter to Holder, remarked that the Obama administration has moved "incredibly slow" at filling this position.
But with a plunging economy and two wars, who can blame Obama for the lack of immediate attention to the drug issue? "I hate to tell you this -- it's not the most important issue that I'm concerned about," Farr said.
by Katie Sanders
Wednesday, March 18, 2009