First-Ever Marijuana Patent Brings Industry Closer To Legitimacy

By Victoria Kim 04/28/16

Not everyone sees Big Marijuana as a good thing.

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First-Ever Marijuana Patent Brings Industry Closer To Legitimacy
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Patents on new plant varieties, produced through breeding or genetic modification, isn’t new. (Think Monsanto.) But as of last year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office approved the first-ever patent for a plant containing a significant amount of THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient. But though this milestone has brought the budding cannabis industry closer to legitimacy, some see it as opening Pandora’s box to legal disputes over intellectual property rights.

Patent No. 9095554 was approved back in August 2015. According to VICE, the federal patent office is now officially accepting patent applications for individual marijuana varieties, medical uses for marijuana, and other associated inventions. The patent was issued to a group of breeders in California. But apparently, the competition has yet to intensify. One of the inventors, Michael Backes, told VICE that his lawyers were “really surprised there weren’t more applications” for individual marijuana varieties. 

But as the industry matures and big corporations emerge, the competition is sure to heat up, says Tim Blake, a longtime grower and founder of the annual Emerald Cup cannabis competition in California. “Big business is coming in from all sides,” Blake told VICE. “These small farmers think they’re going to compete against these big brands. but they’re either going to have to scale up or be satisfied being the little honey stand on the side of the road.” Blake foresees increasing legal battles over marijuana breeding, which will require growers to “spend a lot of money on attorneys.”   

People like Blake worry that both states and individuals are not prepared to deal with the rapidly expanding industry, which the ArcView Group projected to grow to $22.8 billion by 2020. “If the laws change and the big companies move in, I think we’ll have a period of turmoil around ownership, patenting, the whole business,” Erich Veitenheimer, a Washington, D.C.-based patent lawyer who represented the holders of Patent No. 9095554, told VICE.

Those who are pessimistic about the impending marijuana patent “battle” liken Big Marijuana to Monsanto, the American multinational corporation that has been accused of suing farmers for planting patented seeds. Rumors that the company is working on developing genetically-modified marijuana prompted Monsanto to post a statement on its website denying the rumor.

Technically, marijuana varieties that already exist in the public domain are protected from patent trolls. The patent office explained to VICE that in order to obtain a patent, the strain must be “new and unobvious over existing strains” and exhibit “markedly different characteristics from its naturally occurring counterpart in its natural state.” However, it wouldn’t be surprising if people tried to “gain a patent on something that’s already in the public domain,” said Veitenheimer. 

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr