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)

  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director July 8, 2008

    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.

    19 Responses to “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)”

    1. Ted says:

      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. Boone says:

      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. tana says:

      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. Salpula says:

      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. Ted, you’ll be pleased to know that I’ve taken the MSM to task for their lapdog role in maintaining the status quo that is prohibition many times. Check out here:


      and here:


    6. 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.

    7. Cloud says:

      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

    8. 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!!

    9. jb says:

      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 :)

    10. James G. says:

      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.

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