Lyle Craker, PhD, a prominent scientist, writer, and longtime professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst), died in Charleston, West Virginia, on May 15, 2022, at age 81, after battling Alzheimer’s disease. Craker led the Medicinal Plant Program at UMass Amherst. His research spanned several decades and diverse species.1,2
Craker advocated for scientific research on cannabis (Cannabis spp., Cannabaceae), including its anti-nausea and appetite-stimulating effects in pediatric cancer patients. He also is known for his decades-long effort to obtain permission to grow research-grade cannabis and thus end the US National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA’s) monopoly on cannabis used for research purposes.
Craker was born in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, on February 3, 1941, grew up on a small farm, and walked miles to school. He graduated fourth in his class from Wonewoc High School and became the first in his family to attend college. At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he earned a Bachelor of Science in agronomy in 1964 and met the love of his life and future wife, Betty Eckert. In 1967, he earned a PhD in agronomy and plant genetics from the University of Minnesota.
After receiving his doctorate, he moved to Fort Detrick in Maryland and served as an officer in the US Army during the Vietnam War. He originally was trained as a flamethrower but was reassigned and studied Agent Orange’s effects on vegetation.
After completing his service, he joined the Department of Plant, Soil and Insect Sciences at UMass Amherst in 1969. Early in his career, his research topics included light physiology and environmental stress physiology, with a focus on plant responses to air pollutants. At UMass Amherst, Craker continued to research ethylene, a natural plant growth hormone, which he began studying while in the Army. He also studied acid rain’s effects on plants and helped apple (Malus spp., Rosaceae) growers by showing that exposure to red light decreases the rate at which apples prematurely fall off trees.
Craker’s friend, colleague, and PhD student James “Jim” Simon, PhD, who is now a distinguished professor of plant biology at Rutgers University, inspired Craker to study medicinal and aromatic plants. Simon, who had just come from studying herbs in Israel, and Craker, who was studying air pollutants, realized that little was known about the effects of air pollution on culinary herbs, so they built an ozone chamber and began a series of studies that led to the identification of ozone symptoms on basil (Ocimum spp., Lamiaceae) and other herbs.
Simon wrote (email, September 7, 2022):
Lyle was a kind, warm, and understanding person. He was open minded and a true gentleman. I first met him in 1979 at UMass, when I began my dissertation studies in his lab. Lyle and I remained very close friends and colleagues ever since. I know he was proud of me and his other students like Dennis Decoteau [PhD], and yet I was just also so proud of him. He gave of himself to others…. He loved his family very much…. As Lyle was a “farmer” from the Midwest, I always found it ironic that while he was a leading scientist of spices and flavors, he rarely tried new foods and spices. He told me his favorite was a bologna sandwich on white bread, maybe with some light mustard, and when he traveled to China for the first time, one of his suitcases was filled with food from home…. I loved Lyle, and he transformed my life, for which I am not just grateful but humbled…. He was simply a gentleman and a good soul.
In 1981, Craker co-founded the Herb, Spice and Medicinal Plant Working Group of the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS). One of his first research projects on medicinal and aromatic plants resulted in his first book, Herbs: An Indexed Bibliography 1971–1980 (Archon Books, 1984), which he co-authored. This book, which includes more than 6,000 references and a 100-page monograph on herbs of the temperate zone, received the Oberly Award for Bibliography in the Agricultural or Natural Sciences from the American Library Association (ALA) in 1985.
Craker’s “Herbs, Spices and Medicinal Plants” course remained popular at UMass Amherst from 1985 until he retired, when he became the Stockbridge Professor Emeritus of Medicinal Plants. At the university, he also introduced and coordinated the popular annual HerbFest, which ran for more than 20 years.
Craker co-edited at least five volumes of the book series Herbs, Spices, and Medicinal Plants: Recent Advances in Botany, Horticulture, and Pharmacology (1986–2009), was an editor of the Journal of Herbs, Spices & Medicinal Plants, and co-authored the book Herb Gardens in America: A Visitor’s Guide (HSMP, 1991). He had more than 150 publications. He also co-edited multiple publications of Acta Horticulturae, a peer-reviewed series published by the International Society for Horticultural Science (ISHS). He was a member of the American Botanical Council’s (ABC’s) Advisory Board and the American Society of Pharmacognosy (ASP).
While presenting at conferences around the world, Craker was approached by parents whose children had diseases such as leukemia. These parents asked Craker to advocate on their behalf and lobby the federal government to allow research on cannabis’ potential medical benefits. Craker heard stories about how they illegally purchased cannabis on the street to help their children manage the adverse side effects of chemotherapy. Craker wanted to help prove what they said was true, scientifically.
In 2001, Craker, with support from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), filed an application with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for permission to grow cannabis for research on its medicinal potential.3 MAPS had tried to develop cannabis into a US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved prescription medicine since 1992 and would have funded the production facility and research if the DEA had given Craker a license.
In 2004, Craker filed a lawsuit against the DEA and claimed it had engaged in an unreasonable delay, as defined in the Administrative Procedure Act, for failing to respond to his application. MAPS covered the legal fees for the lawsuit, which demanded that the DEA respond. The lawsuit went to trial in 2005.3
“Our work is focused on finding medicinal uses of plants, and marijuana is one with clear potential,” Craker was quoted as saying in a 2005 article published by The Washington Post just before the hearing. “There’s only one government-approved source of marijuana for scientific research in this country, and that just isn’t adequate.”4
Beginning in 1968, NIDA, working with growers at the University of Mississippi, maintained a monopoly on the supply of cannabis that could be used for federally approved research. This was despite federal law that required adequate competition in the production of Schedule I substances for medical, scientific, research, and industrial purposes. Human studies on Schedule I substances require FDA approval, but for cannabis, and no other substance, researchers also had to submit protocols for review by NIDA and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The NIDA/HHS review process had no deadlines and no appeals process and often resulted in lengthy delays or refusals to provide research material.
At the time of The Washington Post article, Craker and MAPS also maintained that NIDA’s cannabis was relatively low quality and would not be an adequate source of ingredients if the FDA did approve a cannabis-based medication. The DEA and NIDA, however, claimed it was not in the public interest to have more than one source of cannabis and said the University of Mississippi program supplied all the cannabis that researchers needed.4
In 2007, after a review of the evidence from the 2005 hearing, DEA Administrative Law Judge Mary Ellen Bittner issued a decisive but non-binding 87-page opinion that it was in the public’s interest to end NIDA’s monopoly and recommended that Craker’s application be approved.3
“This ruling is a victory for science, medicine, and the public good,” Craker was quoted as saying at the time. “I hope the DEA abides by the decision and grants me the opportunity to do my job unimpeded by drug war politics.”3
However, in 2009, the DEA rejected Bittner’s recommendation,3 and it was not until 2021, 20 years after Craker filed his application, that the DEA announced it would “soon register additional entities” to produce cannabis for research purposes,5 ending NIDA’s 50-plus-year monopoly. By then, it was too late for Craker.
Rick Doblin, PhD, the founder and executive director of MAPS, wrote (email, September 18, 2022):
Lyle was a man of courage and integrity, willing to sue the DEA for a license to grow marijuana for federally legal FDA-regulated drug development research. Lyle was not so much a medical marijuana advocate as he was a man with core beliefs in the value of research and in opposing limits on scientific freedom. Lyle saw that the federal monopoly on the production of marijuana was fundamentally obstructing federally legal FDA-regulated drug development research. He persisted in his struggle against the DEA for … years, but in 2021, when the DEA was finally ready to issue licenses, Lyle had retired and was no longer able to start a production facility. However, his pioneering efforts did help others obtain licenses, which will start a whole new era of research into the medicinal properties of cannabis. It was a pleasure and an honor to work with such a principled and dedicated man.
Ethan Russo, MD, a neurologist and highly respected medical cannabis expert, wrote (email, September 11, 2022):
I knew Lyle for many years. He was a gentleman of the old school but was not an old school thinker. He could easily have rested on his status as a tenured UMass professor but saw the injustice of the roadblocks to cannabis research and challenged the DEA to allow his institution to grow and research it like any other agricultural crop. Science above politics should be the rule. In pursuit of this goal since 2001, he demonstrated supreme patience coupled with unmatched resolve, but his wish was never fulfilled.
On a personal level, he was a wonderful colleague, always supportive and encouraging. When he invited me to speak at UMass in 2003, sessions were divided in two. The first was faculty and students and proceeded with the usual academic decorum, but the evening was open to the public, some of whom were vocal activists with an axe to grind against the government hierarchy. It could have been an anxiogenic affair, but Lyle was comfortable in both settings and listened respectfully to all. He will be greatly missed.
Cynthia Barstow, a member of the marketing faculty at UMass Amherst, wrote (email, September 20, 2022):
As I was reflecting on Lyle, I realized something I had not [previously] realized about him. I have always known he was charming, a great storyteller, and dedicated to his global students and to providing the world of medicinal plants the rigorous science it needed. I knew it was thanks to him that I began to teach the highly unusual “Natural Products Marketing” course at UMass and subsequently have taken students to the bi-annual trade shows since 1999. I knew he was a hidden gem on campus…. What I didn’t know was that he showed me it is possible — defying cynics and breaking barriers with unwavering passion and perseverance — to create something that could significantly change the world for the better. I will always be grateful for his mentorship.
Chris Kilham, botanical medicine “hunter,” author, and educator, wrote (email, September 17, 2022):
In early 2000, Lyle invited me to UMass, where I had graduated in 1975, to give a talk to a gathering of medicinal plant enthusiasts. The talk was well attended, and Lyle and I spoke about my possibly teaching a course.
In fall 2000, I began to teach “The Shaman’s Pharmacy,” an ethnobotany course through the Plant and Soil Sciences program. The course made a good companion to Lyle’s very popular course. It was through this work, which continued until 2014, that I got to know Lyle. As enthusiastic about medicinal plants as anyone I have met, Lyle … gave his time generously to a steady stream of drop-ins at his office in Stockbridge Hall. I was one of those and would visit him often for conversations and to exchange ideas.
In every way, Lyle Craker exemplified the best of what many of us call plant spirit. He was smart, talented, cheerful, generous with his time, open to new ideas, and delightful to be around. Over the course of his many years at UMass, Lyle introduced a few thousand students to medicinal plants, encouraged new courses such as mine, and spread the word far and wide. He jumped through endless bureaucratic hoops to gain approval for me to teach “The Shaman’s Pharmacy” in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest for three years. He knew all the institutional hurdles and rabbit holes and deftly moved through them all. I can think of no finer ambassador of medicinal plants. Lyle Craker was a true luminary in the field of medicinal plants, and he made a long and distinguished contribution in all the right ways.
Craker was also one of the original founding scientists of the American Council for Medicinally Active Plants (ACMAP), hosted ACMAP’s 2013 annual meeting at UMass Amherst, and was the editor-in-chief of ACMAP’s Journal of Medicinally Active Plants until he retired in 2021. Craker received the first ACMAP Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021.
In 2014, Craker received the American Herbal Products Association’s (AHPA’s) Herbal Insight Award “in recognition of his efforts to significantly increase and further knowledge and understanding of botanicals and their uses.” He served on the board of the AHPA Foundation for Education and Research on Botanicals (AHPA-ERB Foundation), was a member of the Expert Advisory Council for AHPA’s Botanical Safety Handbook, 2nd edition (CRC Press, 2013), and “made significant contributions to strengthen this publication,” according to AHPA.6
He loved animals, music (especially Johnny Cash), children, traveling, teaching, and reading. Lyle Craker is predeceased by his parents Roger and Marcella, brother, and three sisters. He is survived by his wife Betty; daughters Karen, Nancy, Sarah, and Chantha; and grandchildren.
- Lyle Craker: 1941–2022. Legacy website. Available at: www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/gazettenet/name/lyle-craker-obituary?id=34879235. Accessed October 6, 2022.
- Remembering Lyle Craker, Stockbridge Professor Emeritus of Medicinal Plants. University of Massachusetts Amherst website. Available at: https://stockbridge.cns.umass.edu/remembering-lyle-craker-stockbridge-professor-emeritus-medicinal-plants. Accessed October 6, 2022.
- Medical marijuana: DEA lawsuit – Timeline. Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies website. Available at: https://maps.org/marijuana/dea-license/dea-lawsuit-timeline/?cst. Accessed October 6, 2022.
- Kaufman M. Federal marijuana monopoly challenged. The Washington Post. December 12, 2005. Available at: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/11/AR2005121100825.html. Accessed October 6, 2022.
- DEA continues to prioritize efforts to expand access to marijuana for research in the United States. Drug Enforcement Administration website. May 14, 2021. Available at: www.dea.gov/stories/2021/2021-05/2021-05-14/dea-continues-prioritize-efforts-expand-access-marijuana-research. Accessed October 6, 2022.
- 2014 AHPA Awards. American Herbal Products Association website. Available at: www.ahpa.org/content.asp?admin=Y&contentid=278. Accessed October 6, 2022.