Heroes and Villains

What’s the role of big pharma in medical cannabis research?

As the endocannabinoid system starts to give up its secrets, drug companies are increasingly focusing on cannabinoids, with the hope of patenting novel pain killers, anti-inflammatories and even cancer drugs. Many whole-leaf advocates believe it’s impossible (and unnecessary) to recreate the beneficial effects of the hundreds of cannabinoids found in a cannabis plant, and so pharma is often painted as the big, bad, greedy gate-crasher.

Clearly, pharmaceutical companies are not charities (and nor, for that matter, are cannabis growers or dispensaries...); they won’t invest in a drug unless there is a realistic chance of making a profit. However, the simple truth is that while cannabis may have been legalized for medical use in many regions, it is highly unlikely that it will ever be approved as a pharmaceutical. The multitude of cannabinoids, which make the plant so intriguing as a potential medicine, also make it a regulator’s nightmare. The drug development scientists in our cover feature believe the only path to make true medicine from cannabis lies in isolating individual cannabinoids, just as we once isolated aspirin from the willow tree.

Those who favor a pharmacological approach point out that natural doesn’t always mean better; what modern doctor would suggest boiling willow bark to treat pain? To make it onto the market, a drug must be not just safe, but a proven improvement on existing therapies.

If pharma companies are successful in developing more cannabinoid drugs, does that mean that there is no longer a place for medical cannabis? Certainly not. After all, there are plenty of widely used natural remedies that offer relief to patients, even if they don’t come in pill form. And if some patients prefer medical cannabis over yet another pill, why shouldn’t they have that choice? Plus, doesn’t the very fact that the pharmaceutical industry is proactively pursuing cannabinoid-based drugs speak to the medical power of the cannabis plant?

Whether developing standards for safety testing, producing better strains, or working in the lab to produce cannabinoidinspired drugs, cannabis scientists are united by a common goal: to help patients by unlocking the secrets of this extraordinary plant. What does big pharma’s move into in the cannabis space mean to you? Let me know: charlotte.barker@texerepublishing.com