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How Big Pharma Profits From Obama's Reefer Madness

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By Dirk Hanson

08/17/11

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The problem isn’t only that all these policies, taken together, are inherently contradictory. The problem is that each agency is right, up to a point. Justice and the DEA are correct to insist that certain combinations of the dozens of synthetic ingredients found in “fake” cannabis are not at all user-friendly, and that when marketed over the counter as Spice, K2, herbal incense, or bath salts, may land a consumer in the emergency room. 

Yet agencies like the FDA—and entrepreneurs like GW Pharmaceuticals—are also right to insist that certain medical applications lurk within the chemical heart of the marijuana plant. “In the last three years alone,” writes Maia Szalavitz on her blog at Time Healthland, “cannabinoids have been found to help kill breast cancer cells, fight liver cancer, reduce inflammation, have antipsychotic effects and even potentially help stave off the development of Alzheimer's disease and reduce progression of Huntington's disease. Further, a 2011 review of the effectiveness of cannabinoids for non-cancer pain found ‘no significant adverse effects’ and ‘significant’ analgesic effects.”

It’s laudable that one department of the federal government wants to protect us from potentially harmful synthetic cannabinoids. It’s also understandable that another agency of the government wants to investigate legitimate medical applications for cannabis-based medicines. What’s confusing is the renewed fervor the Obama administration has shown for cracking down on pot-for-pain clinics in the 16 states that have legalized them. Nor is there any ready explanation for the DEA’s bad-faith declaration concerning medical marijuana, at a time when the FDA is actively testing and approving medicines based on both organic and man-made cannabis products. 

The DEA’s intent [may be] to “expand the federal government’s schedule III listing to include pharmaceutical products containing naturally derived formations of THC while simultaneously maintaining existing criminal prohibitions on the plant itself.” 

Although not well known, there are already several synthetic versions of cannabis available to medical patients in the U.S. HU-211, for example, a synthetic version of THC marketed as dexanabinol, is in clinical trials for glaucoma and stroke damage. HU-211 is also found as an ingredient in some versions of Spice. Dronabinol, marketed as Marinol, is a form of synthetic THC prescribed as an appetite stimulant for people with AIDS wasting or on chemotherapy, as is another form of synthetic cannabis called Nabilone. Even the government’s putatively well-meaning attack on “fake” marijuana is not entirely free of conflicts of interest. 

In a pill or a spray, it’s OK. In a doobie, no way. 

Back in 2005, when Canada certified Sativex, AlterNet declared: “Make no mistake: Sativex is liquid marijuana. It is nothing like Marinol, the synthetic THC pill sold in the US and sometimes falsely touted as an adequate substitute for marijuana....By approving liquid marijuana, the Canadian government has just certified that virtually everything our own government has been telling us about marijuana is wrong.” And all of this comes as the DEA and the Office of National Drug Control Policy have furiously redoubled their efforts to put a stake through the heart of the medical marijuana movement, which is attempting, more or less, to sell the same medicine.

Here is GW Pharmaceuticals’ position, which, if the FDA approves Sativex, will tacitly become the position of the US government: “GW has never endorsed or supported the idea of distributing or legalizing crude herbal cannabis for medical use. In both our publications and presentations, we have consistently maintained that only a cannabinoid medication—one that is standardized in composition, formulation, and dose, administered by means of an appropriate delivery system, and tested in properly controlled preclinical and clinical studies—can meet the standards of regulatory authorities around the world, including those of the FDA....In GW's opinion, smoking is not an acceptable means of delivery for a medicine.”

There may be another big reason why smoking is not an acceptable means of cannabis delivery: It’s too cheap. NORML’s Paul Armentano, who frequently writes for AlterNet, says that the DEA’s intent was to “expand the federal government’s schedule III listing to include pharmaceutical products containing naturally derived formations of THC while simultaneously maintaining existing criminal prohibitions on the plant itself.” If that is truly the plan, then the conspiracy buffs have been right all along: Uncle Sam wants to be your one and only dealer—on behalf of his supplier, Big Pharma.

And with President Obama battling hard-right mudslingers in his campaign for re-election, expect him to burnish his "hard on drugs" credentials with further medical-marijuana crackdowns. For now, advocates can only hope for change in his second term. In their dreams.

Dirk Hanson has written extensively about addiction and recovery issues. He is a regular contributor to The Fix, has published The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction and blogs daily at The Addiction Inbox

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