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Will big pharma get intellectual property rights on cannabis for Epilepsy?
GW Pharmaceuticals is causing a storm among medical cannabis activists. A new drug, dubbed Epidiolex is up for approval by the FDA, raising a number of concerns. The cannabis epilepsy drug, designed to treat epilepsy in children, contains CBD, a cannabis extract that is not psychoactive.
Medical marijuana, on the other hand, often focuses on the psychoactive cannabinoid THC, and activists fear that the new drug will cause the medical marijuana lobbies to lose momentum even though there are strains of cannabis that contain high levels of CBD.
GW Pharmaceuticals argues that the new drug contains precise amounts of the cannabinoid CBD – a factor that cannot be verified when the whole plant is used. According to The Digital Journal, Epidiolex has proven to be effective in alleviating Dravet Syndrome, a rare and acute form of epilepsy. In addition, because the product is a registered pharmaceutical, it will be covered by medical insurance, while herbal cannabis and cannabis oils (though cheaper) are not.
The right to self-medicate?
Cannabis activists are concerned that the registration of cannabinoid based drugs will remove the individual’s right to self-medicate, choosing the formulation of their choice, be it herbal cannabis, cannabis oils or cannabis tinctures. Intellectual property rights may also become an issue, with cannabinoids becoming the ‘property’ of big pharma.
Epidiolex, for example, consists of a natural extract from high CBD hemp plants grown in the United Kingdom. The cannabinoid is extracted in its natural form, rather than being a synthetic mimic of the molecule found in the natural hemp plant.
Associated Press reports that no botanical variants of cannabis have as yet been proven to be effective against ailments, although Marinol and Cesamet, pharmaceuticals containing cannabis compounds, have already been approved for use.
THC vs CBD and current medical cannabis laws
In the USA, 23 states have medical marijuana programs. An additional 17 states only allow the use of CBD containing hemp oils that lack sufficient THC to produce a ‘high’. The plant strain known as ‘Charlotte’s Web’ is an example of a cultivar that is only used for medicinal purposes because it lacks psychoactive THC but is high in CBD, the same active ingredient as is being used in Epidiolex.
Greater ‘precision’ vs greater freedom
Pharmaceutical companies contend that by extracting cannabinoids and producing carefully measured doses, greater precision can be achieved when using cannabis ingredients as medicines. They also observe that the trend towards making cannabis extracts at home places cannabinoids beyond the reach of patients who do not have the wherewithal to produce their own hemp oil or cannabis oil extracts.
Cannabis activists say that people should be given the right to choose, and that pharmaceutical companies cannot ‘own’ a natural botanical extract. The Associate Press interviewed a parent whose child has been a participant in Epidiolex trials. She says that she would have preferred to use a whole plant extract, noting that all epilepsy medications require a process of ‘trial and error’ to find the correct dose, no matter how scientifically formulated they may be. She fears the short and long term side effects of the pharmaceuticals her child is currently taking, saying that she currently has to give him 47 tablets every day, and alluding to the story of Charlotte Figi, whose parents claimed a ‘miracle’ cure after using a whole plant extract based on the Charlotte’s web’ cultivar.