Is Big Pharma for or Against Legalizing Medical Marijuana? Maybe Both.

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Pharmaceutical companies are intrigued by the immense and growing medical marijuana market but cannot figure a way to corner it.

People growing their own marijuana is a significant concern to Big Pharma. As state legalization of cannabis-derivatives spreads, the drug companies contemplating the potential of medical marijuana see a threat from both homegrown and professionally harvested medical-grade marijuana.

Pharma offers quality control and deep testing but experience shows that research and development adds to customer cost. Eeven the 21st Century Cures Act won’t speed up the famously slow pace of FDA drug approvals. Given the facts and the perception, you have to wonder if Big Pharma is for or against legalizing marijuana.

Here’s the problem.

A lot of money always attracts a lot interest. Big Pharma wants the revenues that marijuana promises but concede market forces threaten their interests. Big Pharma can’t getting its biggest slice of the pie with individuals and licensed producers harvesting cannabis, not to mention the the black market that continues to thrive.

Ben Cohen, writing for US News, insists it’s all about money. He writes, “For years, large corporations and well-heeled lobbyists have blocked the legalization of marijuana for medical use or recreational use in order to protect their own profits.”

There’s no reason to expect this to stop.

On the other hand, cannabis advocates have a personal and emotional investment in promoting the legalization, or at least decriminalization, of marijuana. Sometimes that makes them anti-institutional and they skew the role of Big Pharma. Finding an objective point of view is difficult.

You might consider the hypocrisy at the February 2014 meeting of the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America (CADCA). While speaker after speaker preached against the legalization of marijuana, leading financial sponsors of the program included Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxycontin.

As reported in The Nation, both CADCA and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids (formerly the Partnership for a Drug-Free America) accept financial support from the producers of the same opioid medications that have led to tens of thousands of deaths. The same two groups, among others, have opposed U.S. Congressional efforts to label prescription opioids for “severe pain,” but they have supported continuing Medicare reimbursement for the addictive pills.

Moreover, pharmaceutical companies take shelter in the DEA’s listing of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, the same category as heroin. As long as the DEA effectively prohibits marijuana medical research, Big Pharma can take the moral high road. TheSchedule 1 designation severely limits needed research into the medical efficacy of cannabis-derivatives.

“Big pharma is lobbying against legalization, on the purported grounds of safety, but in reality, they are just buying time to create their own synthetic cannabis medicines,” said Alan Hirsch, CEO of Diagnostic Lab Corporation, a cannabis safety and science company. “Several biotech companies have started creating cannabinoid chemistry from rice or yeast, but eventually, these medicines will be manufactured by Big Pharma in Schedule 1 facilities.”

The problem that started with the Trump campaign.

Many of the same voters who elected President Donald J. Trump voted to liberalize marijuana enforcement. And, like everything else with the arrival of the Trump administration, things remain in a state of confusion pending official updated stance.

In a Town Hall (03/20/2016) meeting, then-candidate Trump said, “I think that as far as drug legalization we talk about marijuana and in terms of medical I think I am basically for that. I’ve heard some wonderful things in terms of medical. I’m watching Colorado very carefully to see what’s happening out there.”

On The O’Reilly Factor (02/12/2016), when Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly called medical marijuana a “ruse,” candidate Trump said, “But I know people that have serious problems and they did that they really — it really does help them.”

Later, candidate Trump told the Washington Post (10/29/2016), “In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state … Marijuana is such a big thing. I think medical should happen — right? Don’t we agree? I think so. And then I really believe we should leave it up to the states.”

Decades ago he also told the Miami Herald (04/14/1990) “We’re losing badly the War on Drugs. You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars.”

Confusion about the Trump Administration and cannabis.

President Donald J. Trump has sent several confusing signals to the pharmaceutical industry and the cannabis advocates. NewsMaxFinance (03/03/3017) quoted President-elect Trump as saying, “pharmaceutical companies are ‘getting away with murder’ in what they charge the government for medicines.” President Trump repeated that charge at a press conference reported by the Washington Post (01/11/2017) when he also said, “Pharma has a lot of lobbies, a lot of lobbyists and a lot of power.”

Fox Business (02/01/2017) interviewed Eli Lilly’s CEO David A. Ricks following Trump’s White House meeting with pharmaceutical industry leaders. “When asked if he gave the president any commitment to reducing drug prices or to investing in U.S. operations or jobs, Ricks responded, ‘No, Lilly didn’t do that. But, what we did say is that with the right policy environment, in particular, the corporate tax rate which today is an inhibitor for us to invest in manufacturing here in the United States, along with other pro-business policies could allow us to expand operations in the U.S’.”

And, Emma Court of MarketWatch (03/01/2017) reported following Trump’s first State of the Union Address, “The Tuesday evening mention of drug prices underscores ‘our view that Trump is committed to some action to permit federal government involvement in pricing under Medicare Part D, his position for a year,’ Evercore ISI policy analyst Terry Haines said. ‘We continue to think that comes during ACA reform legislation when Trump can insist something be included as a condition of him signing the bill into law.’”

So perhaps President Trump is jawboning the pharmaceutical industry to make a deal? Trump wants some concession he can take to his populist constituency in trade for lower corporate taxes. On the surface, this has nothing to do with marijuana. In fact, his position on marijuana may be something he can trade.

It’s all about the money.

Is Big Pharma for or against legalizing marijuana? Nothing shows that they favor accessibility to marijuana, and everything points to their opposition. However, investors in Big Pharmacy see the light. They remain in the market and are buying up. They see that there’s no moral high road here but there is money for Big Pharma in cannabis.

“No pharmacy company is interested in making cheaper medicine,” Brian Chaplin, founder of Medicine Box told me in a written interview. “The existing Pharma industry is more about patenting and manufacturing medicine that is a treatment plan – not a curative plan.”

Chaplin argues that Big Pharma wants customers to need their products, preferably for the rest of their lives, while creating “customers” but not healing specific ailments.

“This is different from a ‘whole plant’ medicine approach — where we see patients responding to the synergistic effects of multiple compounds (cannabanoids and terpenes) in the plant that are usually lacking in a pharmacy — chemically prepared product,” he continued.

Interestingly, Big Pharma playing in the fields of cannabis might, in fact, help declassify the plant. Christopher Teague of HERB writes, “Big Pharma will prove that cannabis is medicine a hundred times over, in every way, and the DEA will have to reclassify the plant itself.”

According to Matt Gray, CEO and founder of HERB, “Big Pharma has already dipped its toe into cannabis treatment, with the DEA approving synthetic cannabis for pharma company, Insys.”

That same company, however, also donated money to prevent cannabis legalization from occurring in Arizona. “This just proves the point that Big Pharma cares more about their bottom line than the actual treatment of patients,” he continued. “So if they find it financially beneficial, they will get involved in the industry, even if it isn’t necessarily for the right reasons.”

In the end, it’s all about striking a winning balance. Trump needs a victory over high drug prices, especially as they affect Medicare Part D. Big Pharma is in a position to demand concessions. Accessibility to cannabis R&D might just be one of them.

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