The Herbalist: Lyle Craker Reflects on a Career in the Plant Sciences and His Fight for Marijuana Research

by Jesse Arsenault, student, UMass-Amherst (2018)

The office of Dr. Lyle Craker, on the bottom floor of one of UMass Amherst’s oldest agricultural buildings, is stocked with books and papers with titles like “Photoperiodism in Plants” and “Herb Gardens in America.” On his desk sits a collection of small old boxes, containers from a previous era in which herbal remedies were bought and sold with the promise of curing almost any conceivable ailment. Down the road, a large complex of greenhouses holds dozens of different plant species currently under investigation by Craker’s lab. “You can’t [name] all the plants,” he remarks with good-natured hyperbole, pointing out that the interview “would go on indefinitely.”

These diverse plants, however, are the foundation upon which Craker has built his 40-plus-year-long research career. His lab in the UMass Agriculture department focuses especially on plant natural products. Natural products are peripheral chemicals produced by organisms – especially plants – for a variety of purposes. Because of the huge volume of natural products found in this kingdom, plants may be thought of as the master chemists of Earth, capable of creating a staggering array of unique (and sometimes medicinally useful) chemicals.

Stockbridge Hall at UMass Amherst
Stockbridge Hall at UMass Amherst

Contrary to what the innocuous mint and basil plants in the greenhouses – or Craker’s own quiet nature – might suggest, this research topic has brought the professor into contentious conflict with the U.S. government on more than one occasion. As recently highlighted in a March edition of Bloomberg, Craker has been fighting since 2001 to include marijuana (Cannabis sativa) on his list of research subjects. Each application to the Drug Enforcement Administration, however, has been eventually either flat-out rejected or “lost” in the bureaucratic shuffle.

“Certainly, one of the things that we’ve tried to do is to look at the constituents in marijuana. I’ve been applying since 2002 [sic]…guess I’m never gonna get it…” His voice betrays his resignation. And Craker is hardly some drug-addled hippie trying to score free weed – he hasn’t smoked or drank alcohol his entire life – but he understands the social implications of these federal regulations. “That was not me, I’m not bragging about it, but that was not me…I’m not sure if it’s right for kids, or even adults, taking THC, but whenever you’re going to be something then people will want it!”

While his frustration is palpable, Craker’s push for expanded marijuana research is only a fraction of his much broader studies, which include dozens of herbs, spices, and medicinal plants. He says he first got the idea to work on herbs while studying air pollution with Dr. James Simon, now at Rutgers University. At the time, they were not a hot scientific topic. “[Pollution research] didn’t suit me very well,” Craker explains. So, when he sat down with Simon, they attempted to come up with alternative, but related, research subjects. One of these was the growth of flowers along highways affected by car pollution. This was abandoned, but it did lead to a more general discussion of herbs. “We said to each other, ‘Herbs…who’s working on herbs? Nobody!’”

While Craker says there hasn’t been any sort of ‘Eureka!’ moment with his research, he is proud of the broad foundation his lab’s work has laid. The papers bearing his name span a diversity of species, chemicals, and experimental treatments, and he has even helped start a new conference: the American Council for Medicinally Active Plants. The organization, which was founded in response to the lack of herbal recognition in other plant biology conferences, will host its 9th conference next February in Dehradun, India.

It remains to be determined whether Craker will ever get his wish to research marijuana. In the meantime, with healthcare, prescription drugs, and pharmaceutical giants falling under increasing national scrutiny, Craker’s ‘back to nature’ scientific approach may help inform new, more conscious, and less damaging solutions to such pressing public health concerns.