Big Pharma’s anti-marijuana stance aims to squash the rivalry, activists say

Pharmaceutical company Insys spent $500,000 to block legalization in Arizona. Five months later it won approval for a cannabis-derived medical drug

As marijuana legalization swept the US in November, Arizona was alone in its rejection of legal weed. There, a pharmaceutical company called Insys was a major backer of the successful campaign to stop the states recreational cannabis measure, publicly arguing that pot businesses would be bad for public health and jeopardize children.

But to marijuana activists, the motive of Insys was clear to squash the competition.

Confirming those suspicions, Insys has now received approval from the US Drug Enforcement Administration( DEA) to develop its own synthetic marijuana, the latest case of Big Pharma battling small cannabis growers.

With marijuana now legal in more than half of the US, the budding cannabis industry and longtime underground players have grown increasingly concerned about security threats posed by powerful pharmaceutical manufacturers, which have simultaneously helped oppose legalization while seeking to develop their own synthetic cannabis.

I truly dont have a lot of hope for the smaller guy in this country, told Dr Gina Berman, medical director of the Giving Tree Wellness Center, a cannabis dispensary in Phoenix, Arizona. Pharmaceuticals are going to run me down. We have a small business, and we cant afford to fight Big Pharma.

The Insys case provides a stark illustration of what cannabis leaders say is the unethical and harmful posture of the pharmaceutical industry in marijuana fighting to block a plant that in some cases has proven to be an effective, safer and cheaper alternative to addictive prescription drugs.

Big Pharmas subsistence of groups opposing recreational weed have been well documented in recent years. But Insyss pursuit of synthetic cannabis signals the beginning of a different kind of threat and a potentially longer-term obstacle medication companies could pose if they seek to corner the market as weed statutes inevitably spread across the country.

Weve got these pharmaceutical companies that are using their lobbying power to bring something to market that people can grow in their home, said JP Holyoak, a marijuana dispensary owned and cultivator in Arizona, who chaired the states legalization campaign last year. They recognize that the horse has left the barn regarding marijuanas. They cant beat it, so now theyre trying to just take it over.

Insys, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment, donated $500,000 to the anti-legalization campaign in Arizona last year, marking one of the largest ever single contributions to a pot opponent campaign, in agreement with the Washington Post.

Dr Gina Berman, medical director of the Giving Tree Wellness Center, a cannabis dispensary in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo: Bessie Bell

On 23 March, less than five months after Arizonas pot measure failed, Insys announced that the DEA had given the green light for the launch of Syndros, its cannabinoid designed to treat chemotherapy patients struggling with nausea and Aids patients with anorexia.

The drug is a lab-made liquid kind of tetrahydrocannabinol( THC ), a key chemical compound in cannabis. Its different from the street synthetic marijuana known as K2 or Spice, which often involves chemicals sprayed on to plants and has been links between overdoses and demises.

The approval has triggered fierce backlash from cannabis activists, who argue that Insys has helped avoid the very kind of treatment that it is now on track to market.

Its a little bit disgusting when “youre thinking about” the collateral damage for human beings, said Berman.

Whats more, Insys also manufacturers fentanyl, a painkiller that is 50 times stronger than heroin and has a deadly track record. In December, six former Insys executives were arrested for allegedly bribing physicians to prescribe fentanyl to patients who didnt need it.

Insyss association with the opiate crisis constructs its efforts to thwart governed marijuana use all the more alarming, critics said.

Fentanyl is a drug that is rapidly becoming the major pathway for opioid deaths in the US, told W David Bradford, a University of Georgia professor whose research has shown that medical marijuana lowers prescription drug use. Theres conclusive evidence that marijuana is used for pain management. And nobody has ever died from inhaled cannabis use.

Over the years, donors associated with drug rehab and treatment centres have also backed anti-cannabis measures, describing similar accusations of hypocrisy considering marijuanas potential to treat opioid addiction.

With an anti-marijuana conservative leading the US Department of Justice, and the federal government continuing to treat cannabis as an illegal drug with raids and prosecutions, researchers and cannabis producers say are blocked from uncovering marijuanas ability to help curb the opioid outbreak.

That means painkiller producers such as Insys have financial incentives to support the slowdown of cannabis, especially when the delays give them time to manufacture their own government-approved synthetic drugs.

Its fairly absurd that federal law considers marijuana to have no medical value, but allows for the development of synthetic versions of the same substance, told Mason Tvert, of the Marijuana Policy Project, which has backed many state legalization measures.

The existing legal grey area builds it hard for marijuana operations that struggle with a wide range of hurdles, such as banking challenges, law enforcement conflicts and contradictory laws. But current pot regulations are good for pharmaceutical companies that have the resources and infrastructure to navigate Food and Drug Administration approvals.

In one investor filing, Insys even directly admitted that marijuana legalization could significantly limit the commercial success of its cannabis-based products.

All of these pharmaceutical companies rely upon the FDA for their monopolistic protections, said Holyoak. Theyre going to continue to try to keep marijuana illegal except for that.

Existing dispensaries, meanwhile, are often mama and pop stores, said Dr Frank LoVecchio, a medical director at an Arizona poison center, who has researched medical marijuana. They dont have narcotic reps. They dont have the budgets that these guys have.

Larger pharmaceutical companies may end up purchasing dispensaries in the future, he added.

But Michael Collins, deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said he didnt is hypothesized that pharmaceutical companies would interfere with marijuana businesses given that the recreational market continues to grow and will remain distinct from drug corporations.

Berman, however, said she struggled to understand pharmaceutical companies needed to be involved in the first place. Why are we trying to reconstruct the plant when we actually have a plant and its much less expensive for patients to access?

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