Why I'm Not Convinced Big Pharma Is Behind Pot Prohibition (But That's Not To Say They Aren't Looking To Cash In On Medical Marijuana)

REMINDER: NORML podcaster Russ Belville and I will be discussing this essay, as well as my previous blog post “US Government Patents Medical Pot,” later today on the NORML Daily Audio Stash. An abbreviated version of my essay appears on Alternet.org here.
The US government’s longstanding denial of medical marijuana research and use is an irrational and morally bankrupt public policy. On this point, few Americans disagree. As for the question of “why” federal officials maintain this inflexible and inhumane policy, well that’s another story.
One of the more popular theories seeking to explain the Feds’ seemingly inexplicable ban on medical pot — and the use of cannabis by adults in general — goes like this: Neither the US government nor the pharmaceutical industry will allow for the use of medical marijuana because they can’t patent it or profit from it. A related, yet equally common hypothesis argues: Big Pharma lobbies the federal government to keep pot illegal because it won’t be able to compete with patients growing their own medicine.
They’re appealing theories, yet I’ve found neither to be accurate nor persuasive. Here’s why.

First, let me state the obvious. Big Pharma is busily applying for — and has already received — multiple patents for the medical properties of pot. (The US government has too, but that’s a different story all together.) These include patents for synthetic pot derivatives (such as the oral THC pill Marinol), cannabinoid agonists (synthetic agents that bind to the brain’s endocannabinoid receptors) like HU-210 and cannabis antagonists such as Rimonabant. This trend was most recently summarized in the NIH paper, “The endocannabinoid system as an emerging target of pharmacotherapy,” which concluded, “The growing interest in the underlying science has been matched by a growth in the number of cannabinoid drugs in pharmaceutical development from two in 1995 to 27 in 2004.”
In other words, at the same time the American Medical Association is proclaiming that pot has no established medical value, Big Pharma is in a frenzy to bring dozens of new, cannabis-based medicines to market.
Not all of these medicines will be synthetic pills either. Most notably, GW Pharmaceutical’s oral marijuana spray, Sativex, is a patented standardized dose of natural cannabis extracts. (The extracts, primarily THC and the non-psychoactive, anxiolytic compound CBD, are taken directly from marijuana plants grown at an undisclosed, company warehouse.)
Does Big Pharma’s sudden and growing interest in the research and development of pot-based medicines mean that the industry is proactively supporting marijuana prohibition? Not if they know what’s good for them.
First, any and all cannabis-based medicines must be granted approval from federal regulatory bodies such as the US Food and Drug Administration — a process that remains as much based on politics as it is on scientific merit. Chances are that a government that is unreasonably hostile toward the marijuana plant will also be unreasonably hostile toward sanctioning cannabis-based pharmaceuticals.
A recent example of this may be found in the Medicine and Health Products Regulatory Agency’s recent denial of Sativex as a prescription drug in the United Kingdom. (Sativex’s parent company, GW Pharmaceuticals, is based in London.) In recent years, British politicians have taken an atypically hard-line against the recreational use of marijuana — culminating in Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s declaration that today’s pot is now of “lethal quality.” (Shortly thereafter, Parliament elected to stiffen criminal penalties on the possession of the drug from a verbal warning to up to five years in jail.)
In such an environment is it any wonder that British regulators have steadfastly refused to legalize a pot-based medicine, even one with an impeccable safety record like Sativex? Conversely, Canadian health regulators — who take a much more liberal view toward the use of natural cannabis and oversee its distribution to authorized patients — recently approved Sativex as a prescription drug.
Of course, gaining regulatory approval is only half the battle. The real hurdle for Big Pharma is finding customers for its product. Here again, a culture that is familiar with and educated to the use therapeutic cannabis is likely going to be far more open to the use of pot-based medicines than a population still stuck in the grip of “Reefer Madness.” (For example, Marinol, despite having been approved by the FDA in 1986, was rescheduled so that doctors might prescribe it more liberally in 1999 — three years after California and other states began approving medical marijuana use legislation. Coincidence? I doubt it.)
Will those patients who already have first-hand experience with the use of medical pot switch to a cannabis-based pharmaceutical if one becomes legally available? Maybe not, but these individuals comprise only a fraction of the US population. Certainly many others will — including many older patients who would never the desire to try or the access to obtain natural cannabis. Bottom line: regardless of whether pot is legal or not, cannabis-based pharmaceuticals will no doubt have a broad appeal.
That said, many argue that the legal availability of pot would encourage patients to use fewer pharmaceuticals overall and significantly undercut Big Pharma’s profits. To a minor degree this may be a possibility, though likely not to an extent that adversely impacts the industry’s bottom line. Certainly most individuals in the Netherlands, Canada, and in California — three regions where medical pot is both legal and easily accessible on the open market — use prescription drugs, not cannabis, for their ailments. Further, despite the availability of numerous legal healing herbs and traditional medicines such as Echinacea, Witch Hazel, and Eastern hemlock most Americans continue to turn to pharmaceutical preparations as their remedies of choice.
Should the advent of legal, alternative pot-based medicines ever warrant or justify the criminalization of patients who find superior relief from natural cannabis? Certainly not. But, as the private sector continues to move forward with research into the safety and efficacy of marijuana-based pharmaceuticals, it will become harder and harder for the government and law enforcement to maintain their absurd and illogical policy of total pot prohibition.
Needless to say, were it not for advocates having worked for four decades to legalize medical cannabis, it’s unlikely that anyone — most especially the pharmaceutical industry — would be turning their attention toward the development and marketing of cannabis-based therapeutics. That said, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for any royalty checks.
So, if Big Pharma isn’t a significant player in the ongoing prohibition of the personal use of cannabis, then who is responsible? Based on my experience, the answer is obvious. First and most importantly, there’s federal government — as represented not only by the lawmakers who continue to vote in favor of America’s Draconian drug policies, but also the numerous acronymn ladened bureaucracies (such as the ONDCP, NIDA, etc.) who actively lobby against any change in direction.
The second most powerful player in maintaining pot prohibition? That’s easy: law enforcement, as represented by bigwigs like the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the California Narcotics Officers Association, all the way down the line to small-town police forces — all of whom consistently finance efforts to derail any relaxation of federal, state, or local marijuana policies.
The third and final primary player responsible for maintaining modern-day pot prohibition? Unfortunately, that would be us, the general public — a majority of whom have repeatedly voiced disapproval for legalizing the use personal use of pot by adults in both national polls and on statewide ballot initiatives, most recently in Colorado and in Nevada in 2006. (By contrast, more than half of Americans do support — and have consistently voted for — legislation in support of the qualified medical use of cannabis by authorized patients.)
In short, until there is a significant sea-change in the attitudes and actions of the Feds, cops, and the general public, expect prohibition — particularly the broader prohibition on the recreational use of cannabis — to continue.

0 thoughts

  1. You missed the biggest player your essay: Network TV. How long do you think prohibition would have lasted if NBC, CBS, and ABC started airing the truth on the 6 o’clock evening news, start at the time of the Nixon era court ruling? President Ford might have ended it.

  2. It is funny how behind closed doors most people i know who do not use are o.k. with it, but get them around other people who do not use and they think ill of it…one should wonder if people are generally affraid to even agree with something they know in their heart is harmless but because it is “illegal” they have to publicly go the other way… great article by the way, i always assummed the big pharmas to stand to lose but your right, they would ultimately gain from it. great reporting

  3. Great article, Paul.
    Law enforcement meddling in the creation or revision of laws is a big breach of constitutional checks and balances. Their only legitimate area of participation is the enforcing of laws, and for obvious reasons. If you make the laws and then enforce them too, you have way too much power in your hands. Of course the primary reason for their behavior can be summed up in two words: “forfeiture laws” which allow for unsupervised seizing of cash and property in drug cases by law enforcement officers.
    And has anyone mentioned the prison industry lately? They have a big stake in keeping drugs illegal.

  4. Very good points. I’m curious if even if big pharma stands to benefit from reclassification might they want the plant to remain illegal so I have to buy their marinol or sativex in order to get relief for my (hypothetical) glaucoma? I also read that the lobby supported by private prison administration companies (hired by states/counties to run prisons) also push to keep it illegal as something like 30 to 40 percent of inmates are non-violent marijuana offenders (I have not verified this statistic).

  5. Salpula, fortunately, 30 to 40 percent of those incarcerated in America are NOT marijuana offenders. In reality, about 25 percent of America’s prison population are incarcerated for drug offenses (about 500,000 total), and about 1 out of 8 of these individuals are serving time for marijuana-related offenses.
    Obviously, this total is still far too high, but it’s not 30 to 40 percent of the overall prison population.

  6. Let us not also forget who played a big role in smashing the last marijuana reform bill that was attempted…. big oil. Because of the way that pot can be grown and harvested (large quantity in a small area) there is strong evidence to support that the oil extracts from the marijuana seed could greatly decrease the need for or even completely replace fossil fuel

  7. i am a 47 y/o w/m who has suffered many disabling injuries, including spinal damage(3 surgeries)loss of spleen and hep c. from the unbearable pain involved with a broken back i became addicted to opiates, chiefly methadone. i had liver damage and severe depression, ptsd, and weighed 310 lbs.i was dying.in dec 2007 being resigned to my fate i decided that i had nothing to lose and finally got off methadone on suboxone(another ‘legal’ addictve treatment for addiction). i refused to spend my last days on suboxone,being nearly dead from methadone. i tapered my dosage(without dr consent) and detoxed myself. i began using pot instead of drugs to treat my maladies, and to make a long story short i am now comletely drug-free; am 210 lbs; have seen such improvements in my overall health that my dr reluctantly confirmed that my healing is miraculous! im becoming so much better that i may be able to return to work soon(against dr advice) i think he is upset that he is losing a patient to good health thru herbs, but its my life(finally!!)im converting to rastafari and becoming vegetarian also; please keep up the great work!!

  8. yet I am excited and anticipate that the more people who become aware of what is happening that small battles will be won. I mean look at the progress so far, tons of states have decriminalized and more have medical.
    This year Michigan has medical on it’s ballet and the only way that is going to pass is to make people who would vote for it aware of the very fact that its up this election.
    we just have to keep fighting for whats right and people will eventually listen it’s only a matter of time. it might not be in my life time but that is unimportant because to say that it needs to be legal now is selfish of me because i just want it. what is important is to continue fighting. and never give up 🙂

  9. Ok, I think you’re probably right in that “Big Pharma” as a whole isn’t very interested in cannabis legalization, although I am sure that specific companies developing cannabis-based drugs are. People in states with medical cannabis laws may still use pharmaceuticals, but I am sure that the majority who use pot for medicinal purposes use the plant and not the pill (not good for companies making the pill). In fact, if pot were to be legalized and the truth to be made more commonplace, the benefits of the plant over the pill would be a part of the knowledge. If I were a drug company trying to produce pot-based meds, I would personally try to disassociate my drug as entirely as possible from the marijuana, so that people wouldn’t realize that what they’re paying for is free. Best case scenario: the plant would remain illegal, but my drug manages to make it into the market and most people don’t know that it’s pot-based.

  10. Dont forget about the dealers. All the old rich white males out there influencing the drug laws are probably afraid that all the pot dealers will suddenly become legal business men with all their means of growing or acquiring their pot and distributing it already in place. And with racial stereotyping they probably believe that it all minorities doing this. Losing some of their perceived superiority would be completely unacceptable to them.

  11. I’m glad to see this measured piece. Too many pot-smokers and advocates very easily fall for what seem to me to be theories requiring large conspiracies when simple stupidity would be a better explanation.
    Marijuana was illegalised during the Great Depression, a period in which there was great fear of immigrants and also one in which the authorities, unable to remedy much of what was wrong with the country and with the world, were pleased to have something they _could_ do something about.
    Marijuana was after that associated with the marginalised and the rebellious. Its use was a slap in the face of Authority, and still is. (Its prohibition is a slap in the face of Reason, which in some ways bugs me even more than its making it a bad idea for me to use.)
    Marijuana can only be kept illegal if it is considered to be tabu-tabu. Any legitimate use for it destroys its place in that category; for those who believe in their guts (or their pocket-books) that marijuana is bad, this makes any claimed benefit from it (in effect) a lie, because any small fact of therapeutic benefit is contradicted by the overwhelming Truth that It is Bad.
    (A thought experiment: every time you think of the reasonable arguments for medical marijuana, mentally substitute for “medical marijuana” the words “baby skulls”. Any argument you make will be met by your opponent’s, “But they’re BABY SKULLS.” That’s how our opponents feel about it, I think.)

  12. The alcohol , drug and tobacco companies invented these so called drug tests for their own financial gain . With the use of marijuana you would eliminate tens or hundreds of prescription drugs & cut down on drinking and cut down or even stop smoking therefore the drug , alcohol and tobacco companies lose . They invented these kits to discourage the use of marijuana . Their gimmit worked . They have deceived the public for years using this method . That’s why their drugs don’t show up after testing and marijuana does . They continue to use deceptive advertising and other clever gimmics to deceive you to think marijuana is bad when all along they are putting out the real drugs that kill or damage the human body ,Use of Alcohol should be a felony .

  13. I find this essay to be rather unconvincing. Your goal, according to the first few statements in this essay, is to disprove the Big Pharmacy lobbyist argument. Additionally, you say you want to examine WHY the federal government, if not motivated by lobbyists, wants to keep marijuana illegal. After reading the entire paper, you never address the argument. In fact, you don’t make a single accurate, or referenced, point against the lobbyist argument. Moreover, you never even attempt to elucidate WHY the feds keep pot illegal.
    My main gripe is that you make an argumentative statement without providing referenced support. If you know so much about prohibition, and I bet that you do, please show it. I would have loved to hear an accurate and edgy essay against the lobbyist argument, but for now I still believe that lobbyists are a large part of the problem.

  14. Dear , Randy
    You either drive a truck for Budweiser or are a bartender if your in defense of the Alcohol , drug or tobacco Companies . This is not a lobbist statement . It’s about facts ……….

  15. I think the article is right on, it’s ultimately about follow the money. The G-men and law enforcement at large make a comfortable living “waging war” on narcotics. States spent $42.89 billion on Corrections in 2005 alone. To compare, states only spent $24.69 billion on public assistance over that same period. Since the enactment of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug users, the Federal Bureau of Prisons budget has increased by 2000%. Its budget jumped from $220 million in 1986 to more than $5.4 billion requested for FY 2009. By my estimate, the state of Michigan will spend $3 billion next year on Corrections, State Police and Judicial functions. That doesn’t include county, city or federal expenditures on narcotics enforcement. If 15% of incarcerations are for marijuana convictions and those disappear we would no longer need 15% of those “state employees”. We’re talking about tens of billions of dollars spent annually nationwide, and the drug warriors are fighting hard to keep that river of money flowing!

  16. I am so happy to see people are beginning to voice their opinions….go to love the internet. As far as the article goes, I think the author may have missed one point in particular about the Big Pharma…..STRESS is one of the most influential culprits in bad health. Stress will take a minor ailment and magnify and make it worse….marijuana is probably one of the best stress relievers know to man that does leave the patient with a hangover or drowsy feeling the next morning. The Big Pharma know this and they also know that if people reduced and controlled the stress in their lives, there would be less need for their pills that have countless negative side effects. Makes sense to me!
    It just so happens I had a meeting with my state senator’s local represenative this morning. He was absolutely adamant that No consideration towards the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana would come from his office….right now, politicians are getting free money from the Big Pharma to do nothing. Pot is already illegal, so no action is needed. Our elected officials are no longer represenatives “for” the people, but are represenatives “to” the people…..ie they check with the lobbyist, special interest groups and the “Big Businesses” and then tell us how it’s going to be.
    One last point….for thirty-eight years I have asked the same question from your average man on the street to the Lt. Gov of South Carolina and have never received an acceptable answer…..’Why is marijuana illegal?’ The best answer I received was “because Nixon hated hippies” this is based on the fact that Nixon commissioned a study on pot in 1972 and it came back as being no threat to society and relatively harmless and Nixon said, screw this and forged ahead with criminallization. Thw lamest answer came from above mentioned represenative. “You can drink a beer, put it down and walk away….you smoke a joint and you’re stoned. I waited for him to finish, but he was finished. Now, tell me, we have people with that mentality running the country. God save us!!!!

  17. You left out an important group: the Law Lobby. Behind most of the 470,000 annual arrests is a $1,000 to $3,000 attorney fee. So the Lawyers Guild and the American Bar Association make contributions to Preseidents and Congressman alike knowing full well this “blood money” will stop Re-Legalization in its tracks. So far this has worked but I feel the times are a changing. The best model for reform is the MERP Model. Learn more about it through the following links:
    Drug Policy
    Marijuana: Past, Present and Future from Bruce Cain on Vimeo.


    Why Lou Dobbs Should Support Marijuana Legalization

    The MERP Project
    The Marijuana Re-Legalization Policy (MRP) Project
    Bruce W. Cain Discusses the MERP Model, for Marijuana Relegalization, with “Sense and Sensimilla”
    Video Biography of Bruce W. Cain
    The “Hemp Song” by Bruce W. Cain
    “Rainbow Farm” and instrumental dedicated to Tom Crosslin who was
    murdered at Rainbow Farm a week before 9/11 (09/11/2001)
    How Continuing the Drug War could make Nuclear Terrorism a Reality
    by Bruce W. Cain

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