Almost one year ago, Vice published an article outlining the potential patent war that the legalized cannabis industry would generate.  The article warned that the marijuana market would eventually follow the steps of the beer industry, creating a monopoly controlled by big pharma while the little guys sell artisan weed out of rickety stands on the street curb. That ominous prediction is proving to be prophetic, and it’s incredibly hypocritical and a little disappointing. Currently, the DEA classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, which means that it is federally illegal, despite state laws indicating otherwise.  The DEA’s reasoning for this classification is that marijuana is an easily abused drug and has no medicinal value, an opinion given to them by the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.

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The Negatives of Big Pharma Patents

The FDA has approved of synthetic versions of cannabinoid compounds such as Marinol, the brand name of the drug dronabinol (synthesized THC).  Because Marinol is synthetic, it lacks the other beneficial, natural chemical compounds present in the whole cannabis plant, compounds that work together in a synergistic phenomenon known as the entourage effect. Put simply, the federal government has criminalized the natural plant, but legalized and distributed the fake, more dangerous version of it.  Therefore, small cannabis businesses operate in constant fear of being shut down by the feds while Big Pharma innovates fake weed that is potentially killing people.  There’s a whole dark side to this that, ironically, isn’t very well hidden.  I mean, Big Pharma basically funds congress and the FDA. Why is Big Pharma attempting to sabotage the cannabis industry?  Cannabis doesn’t have to be synthesized.  It grows out of the ground.  In fact, it can grow in your backyard, law permitting.  Worse, it’s a safer, potentially more effective alternative therapy to pharmaceuticals.  People even seem to prefer cannabis to pharmaceuticals.  A 2013 study found that in states with medical marijuana programs, prescription medication use in Medicare part D was reduced. The opioid abuse epidemic is ravaging the United States, and marijuana presents a solution.  A 2014 study found that in states with medical marijuana laws, deaths by opioid overdose decreased significantly. Cannabis presents a real threat to Big Pharma, which explains why so many anti-legalization movements are funded by pharmaceutical companies and opioid manufacturers.

The Dirty Details of Big Pharma

For example, Insys donated roughly $500,000 to lobbyists against the legalization of marijuana in Arizona.  Out of the 9 states that voted on cannabis laws this past November, Arizona was the only state that failed big Pharma cannabis profits to legalize.  At the same time, Insys owns a patent for their synthetic THC therapy, which was awarded Schedule 2 status by the DEA, making it legal for medical use. At first, this scheduling might seem like a victory for the legalization movement (because hey, THC has medicinal value now!), but it really just shifts the power into the pharmaceutical industry’s hands.  As long as people are arrested for growing their own cannabis, these pharmaceutical companies face minimal competition. Thankfully, there are some folks out there who aren’t totally ruled by power and greed.  Case in point: the Open Cannabis Project, an organization committed to “building a an archival record of all existing cannabis strains in order to ensure that they remain forever in the public domain, available to all, and will not be restricted by commercializing or patenting.” The Open Cannabis Project’s altruism has met some pushback, however, even from small time growers who aren’t interested in putting their strains in the public domain because they plan to patent them themselves one day. Greed is contagious.  Make a pill for that.

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Who is Filing For Patents?

United Cannabis Corp, a company focused on genetically altering cannabis strains to enhance the presence of CBD, owns 2 pending patents related to cannabis extract preparation. Zynerba Pharmaceuticals, Inc. , a clinical stage pharmaceutical company specializing in transdermal synthetic cannabinoid therapies, owns 1 patent and 1 pending related to THC. Afgin Pharma, LLC, a pharmaceutical company developing neurologic and psychiatric conditions, owns 3 pending patents related to therapeutic topical cannabinoids. Biotech Institute, LLC owns 3 pending patents related to specialty cannabis breeding, production, and processing. Corbus Pharmaceuticals, Inc, a clinical stage pharmaceutical company specializing in the treatment of chronic inflammatory and fibrotic diseases, owns 3 pending patents related to its developing synthetic oral endocannabinoid-mimetic drug, Resunab. Arena Pharmaceuticals Inc., a pharmaceutical company focused on developing biopharmaceutical products, owns 1 patent and 2 pending related to the treatment of pain via cannabinoid receptors. Echo Pharmaceuticals B.V., a company specializing in therapeutic cannabinoid use, owns 4 pending patents related to THC and CBD capsules. Axim Biotechnologies, Inc., a biotechnology company developing pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, and cosmetic products, owns 5 pending patents related to cosmetic cannabinoid products and THC extraction and purification processes. Insys Therapeutics, Inc., a pharmaceutical company specializing in the developing of sublingual cannabinoid therapies, owns 4 patents and 4 pending related to oral and liquid cannabinoid variations. Cara Therapeutics, Inc., a company focused on the treatment of pain and pruritus, owns 9 patents related to the treatment of diseases associated with cannabinoid receptors. Full Spectrum Laboratories, a subsidiary of Teewinot Life Sciences Corporation, a biosynthetic cannabinoid company, owns 5 patents and 5 pending related to methods of producing biosynthetic versions of cannabinoids.big pharma Jenrin Discovery, Inc., a privately owned pharmaceutical company specializing in the treatment of chronic diseases, owns 9 patents and 3 pending related to the treatment of metabolic disorders via cannabinoid receptor antagonists. Solvay Pharmaceuticals, the branch of the chemical company Solvay merged with the pharmaceutical company AbbVie, owns 17 patents related to cannabinoid-based products. GW Pharmaceuticals Limited, a pharmaceutical company specializing in the development of cannabinoid medications, owns 8 patents and 22 pending for the treatment of conditions including epilepsy, cancer, constipation, general pain, and nausea as well as for the methods of extraction, propriety uses, and hybrid strains of cannabis.

Why Does it Matter?

If pharmaceutical companies are able to own the intellectual property behind cannabis production, they will close the rest of the industry out. And if these companies are given even more clout than they already have, it may mean increased pressure on the federal government to shut the industry down while they turn a profit on patients desperate for treatment, even if that treatment isn’t the real thing.

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