Pharma Company Admits Opposing Marijuana Legalization to Protect Its Corporate Profits

C1_8734_r_xThose of us involved in the marijuana legalization movement have long assumed that those companies that produce and sell competing products — especially alcohol and tobacco — were working behind the scenes to try to maintain marijuana prohibition and to protect their duopoly for legal recreational drugs. These industries have lobbyists who regularly work with state and federal elected officials to keep legal marijuana off the market.

But we now see the pharmaceutical companies are also getting directly involved in political efforts to maintain marijuana prohibition, worried that legal marijuana will undermine their bottom line.

Pharmaceutical company joins the war on marijuana smokers.

Recently, we saw the first direct evidence that pharmaceutical companies are now working to defeat marijuana legalization efforts, acknowledging that their intent is to protect their market in synthetic opioid drugs.

Earlier this month, Insys Therapeutics Inc., an Arizona-based company, donated $500,000 to a group calling itself Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, a newly formed organization established to try to defeat Proposition 205, the marijuana legalization voter initiative that will appear on the ballot this November in that state.

Insys currently markets just one product, Subsys, a sublingual fentanyl spray, a synthetic opioid far more potent than heroin (fentanyl is the drug found in Prince’s system following his death in April). “Insys Therapeutics made $62 million in net revenue on Subsys fentanyl sales in the first quarter of this year, representing 100 percent of the company’s earnings,” according to The Washington Post. “The CDC has implicated the drug in a ‘surge’ of overdose deaths in several states in recent years.”

Survey data compiled from medical marijuana patients show that subjects often reduce their use of prescription drug therapies — particularly opioids — when they have legal access to cannabis. According to a 2015 RAND Corp. study, opiate-related abuse and mortality is lower in jurisdictions that permit medical cannabis access, compared to those that outlaw the plant.

Insys has come under scrutiny of law enforcement. According to The Washington Post, a number of states are currently investigating Insys for illegally paying physicians to prescribe their drug in situations in which it was inappropriate. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit against the company, claiming the company’s “desire for increased profits led it to disregard patients’ health and pushed addictive opioids for non-FDA approved purposes.”

The smoking gun.

When the company first made its half-million dollar contribution to the group opposing the Arizona legalization initiative — the largest single contribution to the group by a factor of four — the company claimed that its reason for opposing the voter initiative was “because it fails to protect the safety of Arizona’s citizens and particularly its children.”

But when the company filed a legally required disclosure statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission, it acknowledged to shareholders that it was making the donation because it feared a decline in the sales of its powerful opioid product and that of a second drug it is developing: Dranabinol, a synthetic cannabinoid. Synthetic cannibinoid is a blanket term for an artificial version of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — the active compound in the marijuana plant — intended to alleviate chemotherapy-caused nausea and vomiting. The company concedes that the scientific literature has confirmed the benefits of natural marijuana over synthetic THC:

“Legalization of marijuana or non-synthetic cannabinoids in the United States could significantly limit the commercial success of any dronabinol product candidate. … If marijuana or non-synthetic cannabinoids were legalized in the United States, the market for dronabinol product sales would likely be significantly reduced, and our ability to generate revenue and our business prospects would be materially adversely affected.”

The Arizona Republic reported that the company, while publicly claiming to have kids’ best interests in mind, is clearly more concerned with ways to “protect its own bottom line.”

And the company has good reason for that fear. Recently published studies have found that states that provide for the legal use of medical marijuana had a 25 percent decline in opioid prescriptions. Another recent study from Columbia University found the implementation of medical marijuana programs is associated with a decrease in the prevalence of opioids detected among fatally injured drivers, based on a review of 69,000 fatalities in 18 states, according to data published in the American Journal of Public Health. Where legal marijuana is available, people use far fewer opioid drugs.

So we now have direct evidence that this pharmaceutical company in Arizona is spending large amounts of money to avoid having to compete with legal marijuana, in order to protect its market share for an addictive and dangerous synthetic opioid and a synthetic form of THC, at the expense of public health.

This is not the first instance of pharmaceutical companies pouring money into the “war on drugs.” In 2014, The Nation published an article revealing that the makers of Oxycontin and Vicodin were two of the largest contributors to The Partnership for Drug Free Kids and the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America, two groups that oppose marijuana legalization and support continued prohibition.

Insys will certainly not be the last pharmaceutical company caught putting company profits ahead of concern for public health, but it is the first instance we have seen where a company was caught with its hands in the cookie jar, opposing a marijuana legalization initiative purely for reasons of corporate greed.

Tobacco and alcohol companies have long opposed legal marijuana.

It is understandable that recreational and pharmaceutical industries would not wish to compete with legal marijuana. By any measure, their products are far more dangerous and far more addictive.

Overdose Deaths.

For comparison purposes, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, excessive alcohol use results in approximately 88,000 deaths per year in this country. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tobacco smoking results in more than 480,000 deaths each year in this country, about 1,300 people each day.

A 2014 study by Johns Hopkins University found that states that legalized medical marijuana saw a 25 percent decline in overdose deaths from prescription drugs.

Marijuana has never caused an overdose death in the history of mankind. According to a recent report from the World Health Organization, one would have to smoke “between 238 and 1,113 joints a day – or at least 10 joints an hour, for 24 hours straight – before overdose would become a realistic concern” for marijuana.

Addictive potential.

While one can develop a dependence on marijuana smoking, the threat of dependence with marijuana is far less than with either alcohol or tobacco. Here is what the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine concluded in regard to cannabis’ potential dependence liability, in the context of other controlled substances:

“In summary, although few marijuana users develop dependence, some do. But they appear to be less likely to do so than users of other drugs (including alcohol and nicotine), and marijuana drug dependence appears to be less severe than dependence on other drugs.”

Here are their dependence ratings:

Tobacco: 32 percent (proportion of users who ever become dependent)
Heroin: 23 percent
Cocaine: 17 percent
Alcohol: 15 percent
Anxiolytics/sedatives: 9 percent
Marijuana/hashish: 9 percent

So if one is electing to use a recreational drug, marijuana is clearly the safest alternative. And if one is using an opioid drug for pain, they should experiment with marijuana as a substitute for the more dangerous and addictive opioids. For many, it is an effective and far less dangerous alternative.


Keith Stroup is a Washington, D.C. public-interest attorney who founded NORML in 1970.

This column was first published in


36 thoughts

  1. As pointed out here, Big pHARMa fears a drop in its profits due to cannabis SUBSTITUTING for its products, as also do the alcohol and tobacco profiteers. But note this connection: 2014 Surgeon General estimate that “tobacco-related” illness costs the US economy $289 bil. a year of which $135 bil. is for “medical care”.

    I.e. if legal cannabis (along with its “paraphernalia” including 25-mg flexdrawtube oneheaters) wipes out a big chunk of tobacco sales (mainly 700-mg hot burning overdose monoxide $igarettes) the result will be a reduction in that $135 bil. figure which represents PROFITS in the drug and hospital industries which profit off FAILURE to prevent $igarette morbidity (not to mention our doctors who just don’t seem to know how to get their patients to quit $moking).

    1. How do you think about the National Association of Convenience Stores lobby will react to the legislation in New Jersey that wants to sell marijuana to 19 year olds and up from 711? Do you think they will remain loyal to their number one seller, tobacco? Or will they see the green tsunami and clear their shelves for Marley Naturals and Willie’s Reserve?
      I know Colorado has feared a schedule II take over from CVS and Walgreens, but as Paul Armentano pointed out that probably won’t happen if they still can’t bank with cannabusiness or protect themselves from federal prosecutors.
      But what are the stats? Is selling weed more profitable than selling tobacco from the bottom line of 711?

      1. I think they’ll have to change the name from seven-eleven (711) to “710”! (That’s code for cannabis extracts, called “OIL”, which looks like 710 upside down. It’s the new “420” for extract enthusiasts!)

        The commercialization of cannabis was never the goal of legalization — stopping the arrests is the goal of legalization. Personally, I support the “garden tomato” vision for legalization. But we accepted regulations because (ostensibly) we live with many other people in a democratic society.

        I despise “The Man” and his never-ending corporate deceptions and fraud. Nevertheless, this is the sign we were waiting for; we figured we would know we were “there” when we started seeing corporate logos on pot!

        We went thru “Pot Tarts” and similar plays on product names… I think they got sued for trademark infringement. But can you imagine “Seven-Eleven” Brand weed?

      2. Mark, marijuana is not a tomato. Try as you might, tomato extract will not decarboxylate into THC, or pizza would have been made a schedule 1 substance back in 1972. (But then Who knows; just give the DEA some time…)
        While agreed our priority is to stop arrests for marijuana possession, denying proper regulation for the commercial progress of marijuana industries is itself another form of prohibition. If people want to grow at home or stink up their kitchen, fine. If people want to buy a well labeled whole plant marijuana extract from some lady who does passport photos and doesn’t know shit about strains or dosage, thats the consumer’s prerogative. At least we can’t overdose the people who can’t read with too much marijuana.
        Let’s put it this way: either we get serious about marijuana commercialization and get our labeling and commerce laws done right or the tobacco industry and synthetic poisons Inc. will do it for us.

      3. That oily 710 sounds good– but only half as good as 1420?

        @Julian mentioned CVS– give them credit, they got rid of tobacco selling, haven’t heard any other bigs(t)ores did yet. Moving in our direction?

      4. Perhaps I should clarify; While my previous posts addressed Colorado dispensary concerns with a schedule II-Walgreens-CVS monopoly, my question is directed more specifically at how the National Association of Convenience Stores, or NACS, will react when 711s start stocking weed products when they’re biggest sales product is tobacco?
        This article from the Denver Post shows that cigarette sales went up as the population grew after marijuana legalization;

        …Which means that the Tobacco lobby and NACS may not feel as threatened by 711 selling both tobacco and marijuana as much as CVS not selling tobacco at all.

  2. This has been known The question is, how do we stop the control pharma has over life and death. That’s the outrage. They are not about taking care of our population. So how does our government allow this to happen?

  3. Like they say, “You’re not paranoid if they’re really out to get you!” It’s an axiom I’ve lived by for decades.

    But it’s not only Big Pharma, the tobacco industry, and the alcohol industry who are out to get us. It’s every private employer that ever required a drug test as a condition for employment! They’re not legally required to do that; they do it because… you got it, — for the money! They don’t care that your rights — and indeed, your body — are being violated.

    Could it be any clearer? Corporate America does not love America. Just it’s money.

    But I do not recognize any Corporation’s authority to tell me how to live!

    1. Furthermore, the DEA has just banned Kratom, saying it poses “imminent hazard to public safety.”

      Bullshit! Who do you think they’re really doing that for? Hint: It’s all about the money. Answer: Corporate America! Protect those profits, the hell with actual American citizens.

  4. I live in Arizona, the heroin and opiate addiction in this city has skyrocketed in the last 10 years. I literally broke down in tears when medical marijuana passed by a margin of less than 2%.

    We now have the chance to vote in recreational marijuana use, although I don’t agree with every part of the initiative:I.E recreational marijuana despencery locations cannot exceed 10% of state approved alcohol distributors which is 180 state wide leaving 18 locations for recreational marijuana despencery STATEWIDE! Compromises must be made, 18 is much better than Zero!!!

    The logic implications behind this are absurd, if recreational despencery are caped at 10% of alcohol, this implies alcohol is 90% safer!?!?! Most of us know that argument won’t hold up. The whole notion of regulation like alcohol is also not present either, I’m sure our politicians were paid very well to protect the interest of the alcohol industry while this initiative was written…. but compromise at least gives our suffering population of 4.5 million the option to choose booze or bud.

    VOTE IN FAVOR OF PROP #205 Legalize recreational marijuana for adults over 21!!! At the very least we will have an outlet to numb ourselves while Trump starts world war 3 if elected!
    Ohh yeah Go Hillary!!! Not a huge fan of hers but if Trump is the only other option the choice is easy!

  5. It gets worse, here in Australia since 2015 multiple bills have changed the definition of Cannabis from a plant to a suite of pharma products, none including Cannabis (if your definition of Cannabis is over 3% THC). The latest evolution of this is to redefine Subsys (Fentanyl) from Invsys, that the singer Prince died from, as Cannabis as well. Not because it is even from a plant (it is a synthetic) but per the bill because it can ACT like Cannabis. With the media also controlled by the government nothing gets discussed, so the battle is small) more on

    1. Well now, that’s a bit of bizarre reefer-madness bogus logic: Fentanyl is legally defined as “Cannabis”, because it is “like” cannabis (except that it isn’t)? And presumably, it is available by prescription, while actual, real, honest-to-god cannabis is held illegal? That’s so loopy, it’s making me dizzy!

      Thanks for the update from Down Under. Still sounds like marijuana prohibition to me!

  6. One of your best articles yet Keith! Thank you for consolidating good peer-reviewed, controlled studies to use on our next letter to state and federal Congressman. I would add the link to the ongoing studies reported by JAMA;

    These are important tools during the most important two months for marijuana reform of any election year since the publication of the existence of the endocannabinoid system in 1995 and California’s first marijuana reform law in 1996.

    As if the American public wasn’t fed up Big Pharma with price jacking from Mylan’s epipen. But at least that medicine saves lives. Insys is literally killing Americans for profit.

    But the good news is despite every effort to stop Arizona’s legalization in court or in Congress the initiative will see a vote. And with this report on Insys more Arizonans will be mota-vated to register to vote. Make copies of voter registration cards. Find your 18-year-old pot-smoking nephew and get them registered today! Sign it, mail it and legalize it!
    Does anyone else aprecciate the irony that Insts is under investigation by Illinois top law enforcer for paying kickbacks to peddle fentanyl while the Charlotte Police Department tries to justify the murder because a black man was allegedly rolling a joint? Where is AG Loretta Lynch? Shouldn’t she be prosecuting Insys as a threat to national security?
    The bigger irony is Insys even admits synthetic cannabinoids are not as therapuetically effective as whole plant cannabis. That was like Al Capone admitting he prefers the Tommy Gun over ending prohibition.

  7. Oklahoma:

    I have one complaint about showing a cigarette in the caricature of you lol. But you get those who are against smoke. When reposting on FB, that’s the image in the post.

    I talked to Insys about the delay on providing CBD oil to the University of Oklahoma Neurology and delay of the study on Dravet S. Apparently, the FDA is taking its own sweet time at sending the paperwork to the DEA.

  8. I often wonder if much of the mainstream news is paid off to keep this kind of information from the public. If not for the fact that us cannabis crusaders seek out this kind of info we would never know about this.

    The levels of deceit and the numbers of players involved is absolutely disgraceful and any congress that gladly accepts dollars to continue it should be removed from office; i.e. those that serve only themselves.

  9. and let’s not overlook that marijuana intoxication or “dependence” (aren’t good things worth repeating?) don’t come with the debilitating effects that overuse of the other substances listed. No death from overdose, no debilitating withdrawal symptoms, no significant impact on major organ systems, etc. Legalization of marijuana (and it is coming) will be sure to bring Big Pharma down to size.

    1. i.e.: marijuana does not “intoxicate,” as it has no recorded fatal overdose, and is therefore neither “toxic” nor “poisonous.” THC is psychoactive if it is in greater concentration than CBD. Thats it.

      1. Now SYNTHETIC cannabinoids, on the other hand… No synergy, no medicine. What the FDA and big pharma have produced in patentable compounds is patently unhealthy. And the beauty is as each state legalizes we will choose whole plant cannabis every time over synthetics. We vote with our dollars.

  10. I’ve always used weed to enhance my creativity as a singer/songwriter/guitarist who records and produces his own stuff. I preferred sativas for this purpose.

    I recently met a guy who prefers to use a good indica for its body high and to help in his workouts toward competing in body building competitions. A good indica juices up his workouts as well as helping him endure them. It also helps with recovery. He also uses it to get through the worknight.

    He and I use weed distinctly differently.

    I would dearly love to get some of the pure Columbian Sativa that we commonly were able to score in Lancaster County from the late 1960s through the 1970s. Lots of brown buds rich in dark mature seeds. These could pop quite startingly as a joint was hit up.

  11. Can’t let this post go by without mentioning the millions of US tax dollars that are spent on defense contracting for conglomerates like Northrup Grumman or name-changing evil entities like Academi (formerly known as the infamous Blackwater) that continue to waste innocent lives “eradicating” opium from Afghanistan to South Africa to Mexico conveniently during harvest time. Meanwhile, who can explain why these countries are exporting more opium than ever before? Or where opiate peddling companies get their $upplies of poppy?
    During this National Voter Registration Day, as we reach out to our Pot smoking nephew with a voter ID card ready to sign and mail, lets all take a monent to understand the evil bureaucracy of what the DEA is, and read this;
    “Applicants who are found, through investigation or personal admission, to have experimented with or used narcotics or dangerous drugs, except those medically prescribed, will not be considered for employment with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Exceptions to this policy may be made for applicants who admit to limited youthful and experimental use of marijuana. Such applicants may be considered for employment if there is no evidence of regular, confirmed usage and the full-field background investigation and results of the other steps in the process are otherwise favorable.”

  12. This has been a problem from day one!!! Then what needs to be done is to start playing there game and use the 14Billion dollars that has been generated so far the same way they do, start buying the votes needed!!! If Hillaryman makes it I’m sure she take all that can be given and most of congress would love the extra cash too!!!

  13. If theres any indication of how much of a hold Big Pharma has on Congress, Congress just passed funding for the zika virus, even though the Brazilian government conveniently and quietly admitted after the summer olympics that their outbreak of microcephaly was not due to mosquitos per se, but in fact a pesticide they released into the water that kills mosquito larvae… And apparently also shrinks baby’s heads;
    And now that Bayer is broke from purchasing Monsanto, there will be all new incentives to mandate unnecessary quantities of mosquito pesticides sprayed upon our children and pregnant women so that these companies can conjure up the next scare tactic to squeeze money out of Congress.
    (Whole plant non toxic Spearmint oil extract and vitex works to repel mosquitos without shrinking your baby’s head, incidentally).

    But Who knows? Perhaps the spider mites in marijuana farms cause radioactive bites that will make costumed men shoot web fluid into people’s mouths, a condition known as spider-bating? Pretty soon all we’ll see on cable news is how the next unsuspecting victim was spider-bated in public! And only Bayer-Monsanto has the cure!
    Of course thats bull$#!*, but admit it, for a moment there you were about to spray some more pesticide on your female marijuana plants, just to be safe…
    Wake up America!
    Here’s where you find out where Congress gets their donations from before you vote;
    And the score again;

    1. A way to get some modest benefit out of riefer plants without the agony of spraypoisons– don’t sweat out laboriously nursing elite females to maturity, maybe our agitation will force govt. to oversee a regulated trustworthy supply of high thc, 500 tokes a year, but meanwhile just go ahead and raise lots of little plants but keep harvesting the outermost leaves day by day, keeping the plants dwarfed and immature, and making Salads (chew chew) and Blender Smoothies (swish swish).

  14. The root of this problem is your politician wants to protect his source of campaign money. Until it is against the law for any corporation to participate in the election process the citizens get beat by money. Corporate tycoons have purchased the ultimate propaganda machine major media networks. then have purchased
    all the small networks as well. Americans have been sleeping at the wheel as their source of information is polluted by tycoons. Just look at this election! REEFER MADNESS IS NOT THE ONLY PROPAGANDA! Our mainstream news parrots the message of its tycoon owner be it FOX,BLOOMBERG ECT. Our elections are not the only thing ruined by the American corporations. There should be corporate structure as there are all over the world but lawmakers have designed laws for them to out flank our peoples wishes. You must admit the media propaganda machine has made fighting for our issue take forever by selling fear and misinformation. Voters can not make an informed decision when they are basing their choice on bad information or lies. Get corporations out of politics or they will vote with their money!

  15. Cant stand the Pharm industry with regards to opioids / pain care management. My fear is the same thing will eventually happen to the Medical Marijuana industry by creating and maintain such powerful strains it will eventually stimulate a black market for these overly potent plants. My belief is to legalize the plants if we don’t accomplish that then the Medical Marijuana industry will be know better than the Pharm industry.

    1. Agree with @Donna, legalize the plants. Not so scared the corporate hegemoths will promote anything overly potent, it’s NOT THC that causes harm (especially to kids), it’s the carbon monoxide overdose in a combustion joint. You will be gratified after a 25-mg smooth slow single toke (or maybe two) of high-THC herb how much money you saved compared to a 500-mg paper puffoff loaded with deutschweed.

    2. Allow me to disuade your fears, Donna.
      1). The frequency in the available potentcy of marijuana, especially here in the US, occurred during the last 75 years of prohibition. Its prohibition that creates black market demand for more potent strains.

      2). Even the most potent strain of whole plant marijuana cannot create an overdose, because unlike opiates the receptors for cannabinoids are not exhausted to the point of toxic withdrawals. A synergy of cannabinoids restores homeostatic balance, stimulating organ function while a cocktail of opiates can shut your organs down.

      3). Furthermore, marijuana allows us to perceive our pain location for further treatment while trying to manage our pain with opiates does not allow us to perceive our location, much less feel confident enough to go to the grocery store. Marijuana is not a good recipe for Addictions-R-Us.

      4). Finally, the concern you may have may be for synthetic cannabinoids, the only fake compounds allowed by the FDA-DEA-HHS triad. But have no fear; here we vote with our dollars; while states continue to make whole plant cannabis more available, including 6 plants at home, Americans aren’t going to remain on inferior synthetics that create homeostatic imbalance when a good strain of marijuana synergy and balance is so readily available. In other words, synthetic drugs are patently unhealthy and Americans know it. whole plant gardens will naturally become more common once people make the effort to grow cannabis, improving overall health and reducing the “Big” in pharma.

      I hope that helps you vote and feel better.

  16. I’m a medicinal user mainly. Yesterday had the wonderful stop marijuana or get kicked out of pain management. I have 2 steps to my actute and chronic pain…less than 4 hydrocodone a day and some evening marijuana for relaxant. This infuriated and embarrassed me and I’m reminded of what my mom, KAY LEE, told me…we have to fight through legal channels. I’d really like to know how to find a champaign working in the area of pain management. I’m all for personal recreation as well. Never met a smoker whom made me believe it should be off limits to people for any reason.

  17. I turned on the radio just in time to catch this wonderful debate from NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook:
    Mason Tvert from the MPP called out Kevin Sabet from Project SAM and said Project SAM was being funded by INSYS Therapuetics, the infamous producers of the deadly synthetic heroin, fentanyl, who was caught by MPP making the single largest half a million dollar donation to the anti marijuana legalization campaign in Arizona last month. Insys is also under investigation in 6 other states, including Illinois for paying kickbacks to doctors to push fentanyl for symptoms not required for such an addictive and lethal drug.

    Any marijuana legalization activist that has been involved since before Colorado legalized has seen when a scandal and good press can push our movement along, such as when Dr. Sanjay Gupta from CNN released his WEED documentary and showed 30 seconds of film where whole plant cannabis stopped the convulsions of Charlotte, a little girl suffering from hundreds of seizures per day until her parents moved to Colorado.
    But nothing has hit American society in such a timely way during a time when so many states are facing legalization initiatives as the news that the makers of fentanyl and FDA approved synthetic marijuana, Insys, are caught backing anti-legalization initiatives, allegedly funding Project SAM, paying kickbacks to doctors and lobbying the DEA to stop the rescheduling of whole plant THC extracts.
    Americans were already fed up with Big Pharma from price hikes like Mylan’s epipen, but at least that medicine saves lives. The revelation of an anti-marijuana villain with a name, Insys, will push Arizona’s tight vote into a whole-plant marijuana victory, and spell doom for the entire synthetic patenting system that is tearing away the very fabric of homeostatic balance and quality of life for so many Americans.

  18. None of this obstructionism is unexpected. When it comes down to it, greed will out. The money-grubbers will do anything to protect their bottom line.

  19. An impressive share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a colleague
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    And he in fact ordered me lunch due to the fact that
    I discovered it for him… lol. So allow me to reword this….
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