Why Medical Marijuana is a Menace to Big Pharma
The legalization of cannabis poses a significant economic threat to a number of major players in the pharmaceutical industry. Cannabis, in fact, is already cutting into the profits of drug companies in states where medical marijuana is legal, while Medicare prescriptions in those states are already down.
As researchers at the University of Georgia report, “Using data on all prescriptions filled by Medicare Part D enrollees from 2010 to 2013, we found that the use of prescription drugs for which marijuana could serve as a clinical alternative fell significantly, once a medical marijuana law was implemented.”
As a result, the savings for Medicare, back in 2013, were roughly $165 million. That number is projected to hit nearly a half a billion dollars once medical marijuana is legalized nationwide (and this is at current prices, but prescription drug prices have been skyrocketing). All of this, of course, is just for Medicare Part D (the focus of the study), which only applies to seniors. Thus, the total impact is likely to be far greater when all prescription patients are taken into account.
A 2015 Canadian study conducted by the Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia similarly found that, among the 473 cannabis users they surveyed, 80.3% gave up prescription drugs in favor of cannabis.
On July 19, speaking in a NORML forum on Facebook about the need for cannabis reform, Congressman Earl Blumenauer said, “The evidence is stronger and stronger, and particularly in the aftermath of this opioid crisis: States that have medical marijuana prescribe fewer pills.”
And, yet, this is likely just the beginning. As medical marijuana research marches ahead, scientists are virtually certain to discover new potential applications for cannabis, both replacing current pharmaceuticals and helping to address diseases and conditions that do not yet have effective treatment programs in place.
Using Cannabis to Confront the Opioid Overdose Epidemic
Perhaps the best news coming out of the states that have legalized medical marijuana is that 30% of the patients who switch from pharmaceuticals to cannabis are using it as an alternative to opioids. In essence, cannabis is in fact already saving lives.
The United States is currently in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic. In 2014, opioids killed 28,000 Americans. In 2015, opioids killed 33,000 Americans. And 2016, The New York Times reports, is expected to be even worse, likely growing by as much as 19 percent (final 2016 numbers are due in December 2017), to approximately 39,000. For perspective, a total of 58,318 American soldiers died in the Vietnam War. In 1995, at the height of the epidemic, 48,371 Americans died from HIV/AIDS.
Yet, despite the shockingly uninformed statements of America’s Attorney General, there has been significant declines in opioid overdoses in states where medical marijuana has been legalized. According to a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association, opioid overdose deaths in states with medical cannabis have dropped approximately 25%.
Unfortunately, regardless of the increasingly compelling evidence that cannabis can help to end the opioid epidemic, and save American lives, Congress refuses to act. Worse still, people like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg are actively working to not just to prevent the end of cannabis prohibition, but to escalate the war on drugs.
Could Big Pharma be behind the madness?
The 9 Areas Where Medical Marijuana is Already Disrupting Big Pharma’s Profits
Medical marijuana patients are using cannabis to treat a wide range of conditions beyond those where opioids play a role. In fact, according to a survey reported by Leafly, a Canadian dispensary “discovered some staggering statistics pertaining to substitution—63% of respondents reported using cannabis in place of prescription medications.”
Furthermore, the research firm New Frontier Data recently identified 9 areas where medical cannabis is expected to have the most damaging impact on big pharmaceutical companies. “Among those,” the firm reports, “spending on treatments for chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) represented about 60% of the total. Overall in 2016, it was estimated that patients spent nearly $14.3 billion and $10.6 billion, respectively, to treat chronic pain and PTSD.”
The remaining 40% of the total, according to New Frontier, accounts for the other 7 areas: anxiety, epilepsy, glaucoma, nausea, nerve pain, sleep disorders, and spasticity.
What’s more, scientific evidence suggests that these nine areas are only the beginning. Cannabis researchers have in fact found preliminary evidence for the use of cannabis in treating a range of other conditions and diseases, including, potentially, a number of cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, CTE, and dementia.
Nevertheless, the nine areas identified above are the specific conditions where cannabis is already impacting the pharmaceutical markets in those states where medical marijuana has been legalized. The researchers of the University of Georgia study conclude, “Our findings and existing clinical literature imply that patients respond to medical marijuana legislation as if there are clinical benefits to the drug, which adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting that the Schedule 1 status of marijuana is outdated.”
It is also worth recalling that cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, which, therefore, presents two other obstacles for some potential cannabis patients: 1.) First, regardless of state laws, many doctors will not recommend cannabis, and many patients will not consume it until the state-federal conflict is resolved. 2.) Second, as long as cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, insurance companies are unlikely to cover the costs of cannabis (at least not without a legal battle), and, therefore, cannabis could be an additional expense that could be prohibitive for some patients.
The fact that the vast majority of current cannabis patients are willing to pay for their medical marijuana out of their own pockets, even while powerful prescription drugs are available, drugs which are covered by insurance, one might ask: Why? What is the rationale for making the switch? According to a Canadian study, there are three primary reasons: 1.) 39% of survey respondents said it was because cannabis has “less adverse side effects.” 2.) 27% said that cannabis was safer, and 3.) 16% said that cannabis was better at treating their symptoms (These numbers are likely to improve as doctors and patients learn more about different strains, cannabinoids and dosing recommendations for different diseases and conditions.).
No doubt, cannabis poses a significant threat to America’s major pharmaceutical companies. But the possibility of legalization, with millions of new patients switching from pharmaceuticals to cannabis, is an even more threatening prospect—so much so, in fact, that a number of pharmaceutical companies, associations, and executives are engaged in an all-out war against weed.
Waging a War Against Legal Weed: Big Pharma’s 4-Part Approach
With some experts estimating that the potential threat level that cannabis poses to the pharmaceutical industry is in the neighborhood of $18.5 billion, it is no surprise that Big Pharma is doing everything it can to mitigate that threat. What was likely not anticipated, however, was the depth to which some pharmaceutical companies would sink in their relentless efforts to prevent the legalization of marijuana in America, and keep the cannabis plant away from new and existing patients.
Undoubtedly one of the most notorious of these pharmaceutical companies is perhaps most infamous for their massive alleged kickback scheme, used to incentivize doctors to prescribe their powerful, highly addictive fentanyl- based opioid, Subsys. The ongoing investigation, according to Business Insider, “illustrates how this company became the poster child for the evils of the opioid crisis and how some companies stopped at nothing to addict America.”
The company in question is currently being sued by the health insurance company Anthem (Blue Cross), which alleges that said company defrauded their company of millions of dollars by claiming that thousands of Anthem’s customers have cancer when, in fact, they don’t. According to Business Insider’s Linette Lopez, “Anthem says that’s because [said company] devised an elaborate scheme to get around Anthem’s system—allegedly falsifying records and posing as medical professionals,” essentially, according to Anthem’s complaint, writes Lopez, “lying, cheating and defrauding its way into the medicine cabinets of Anthem clients across the country.”
Given the company’s alleged history of illegal schemes against innocent patients in pain, the company is question gained considerable attention across the cannabis community when it came out against the legalization of medical marijuana in 2016. The offending company had a drug, known as Syndros, under development which uses dronabinol (i.e. synthetic THC), and, as the company’s SEC filings revealed, the legalization of medical marijuana was seen as a threat to the company’s market share. As stated in their filings with the SEC,
“Legalization of marijuana or non-synthetic cannabinoids in the United States could significantly limit the commercial success of any dronabinol product candidate. …If marijuana or non-synthetic cannabinoids were legalized in the United States, the market for dronabinol product sales would likely be significantly reduced and our ability to generate revenue and our business prospects would be materially adversely affected.”
When the company in question came out against the legalization of medical marijuana in Arizona in 2016, there was no mention of their efforts to bring a synthetic marijuana pharmaceutical to the market. Instead, the company claimed to be motivated by a desire to serve the public good. Spending $500,000 to block the legalization of marijuana in Arizona—the only state where marijuana failed in the 2016 election sweep—the offending company became, at the time, the “largest funder of the effort to defeat Proposition 205.” The company in question opposes the legalization of cannabis, a spokesperson said, “because it fails to protect the safety of Arizona’s citizens, and particularly its children.” Of course, proponents of legalization know all too well that communities will be better protected by a well-regulated market with licensed businesses, not a black market served by drug cartels.
Unfortunately, this is just one of the many ways that pharmaceutical companies like the one we have been disscussing are waging a war against the legalization of cannabis across the country. In fact, there are four main strategies being employed by Big Pharma in the war on weed:
- Campaign Contributions. As the story of the company above and the failure of Prop 205 in Arizona illustrates, making large contributions to anti-cannabis political campaigns is one way Big Pharma is attempting to stop legalization. But they are also giving hundreds of millions of dollars to anti-cannabis non-profit organizations such as Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America (CADCA), and the Partnership for Drug-Free
But don’t be fooled by the names of these groups. Big Pharma funds organizations like this because they see the legalization of cannabis as a direct threat to their bottom line, not because they think drugs are bad (that’s what they’re selling, after all), or because they care about kids (any more than they do any other group of existing or future customers).
In fact, it’s questionable whether these groups would even exist without the support of Big Pharma. “The Nation obtained a confidential financial disclosure from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids showing that the group’s largest donors include Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, and Abbott Laboratories, maker of the opioid Vicodin. CADCA also counts Purdue Pharma as a major supporter, as well as Alkermes, the maker of a powerful and extremely controversial new painkiller called Zohydrol.”
Not surprisingly, The Nation reports, “The groups’ approach to marijuana contrasts sharply with their attitude toward prescription-drug abuse.”
Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy’s Project SAM is also reported to be “rife with potential conflicts of interest.” In fact, even some of Project SAM’s board members represent special interests that are profiting from the prohibition of pot.
- Lobbying Government Officials. Lobbying is another powerful political tool that Big Pharma uses to wage the war on weed. As The Guardian reports, “the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, considered one of marijuana’s biggest opponents, spent nearly $19 million on lobbying in”
When the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) wrote to Acting Administrator DEA Michele Leonhart in 2010, recommending that THC be moved to Schedule III, A Therapeutics company in question, threatened by the prospect of competition from natural cannabis, lobbied the Drug Enforcement Administration to express their vehement opposition the HHS recommendation with some misleading poppycock about, “the abuse potential in terms of the need to grow and cultivate substantial crops of marijuana in the United States.” The DEA quickly ruled precisely the way the offending company requested.
While some pharmaceutical companies are brazen enough to openly flaunt their conflicts of interest, others prefer a less conspicuous approach, preferring to lobby government officials through anti-cannabis advocacy groups such as Project SAM, CADCA, and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. In 2014, for example, according to another report, the Big Pharma-funded groups CADCA and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids wrote to a number of government officials, including the attorney general, lobbying them to “keep marijuana listed as Schedule I, a designation indicating that it has no recognized medical use and is among society’s most dangerous drugs.”
- Paying Off Politicians. If you think American politicians aren’t being bribed, think again. In fact, more than a few have openly admitted to taking part in the corruption. In 2015, for instance, Donald Trump said publicly, “I gave to many people, before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me. And that’s a broken ”
Former President Jimmy Carter reports that the bribery in Washington is widespread. “Now [the United States is] just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president” he said. “And the same thing applies to governors and U.S. senators and congress members,” Carter continued. “…So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors…”
Of course, more than a few pharmaceutical companies are deeply involved in the broken political system. One pharmaceutical company, Amgen, which has pleaded guilty to fraud, has 74 lobbyists on staff working in Washington, D.C., and allegedly has three of the most powerful Members of Congress in their back pocket. According to the award-winning AlterNet, “All three have received hefty campaign donations from the company whose bottom line mysteriously just got padded at taxpayer expense. Since 2007, Amgen employees and its political action committee have contributed nearly $68,000 to Senator [Max] Baucus, $73,000 to [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell’s campaigns, and $59,000 to Senator [Orrin] Hatch.”
Not surprisingly, 2 of the 74 Amgen lobbyists have connections to Congress—one is Senator Baucus’ former chief of staff, and the other is Senator McConnell’s former chief of staff. “Two guys nurtured at public expense,” writes award-winning journalist Bill Moyers, “paid as public servants, disappear through the gold-plated revolving door of Congress and presto, return as money changers in the temple of crony capitalism.”
On the flip side, at the time Congress gave the $500 million dollar gift to Amgen, Amgen’s former health policy analyst was serving as a top aide to Senator Orrin Hatch.
Sadly, this is yet another one of the hurdles that the movement to legalize cannabis is up against: Pure, unadulterated corruption of the United States Congress.
- Bribing Scientists to Publish Flawed Research. Fake science is the fourth major strategy Big Pharma uses to wage the war on weed. Unfortunately, this problem too is widespread. In a shocking investigation, reported by Scientific American, anesthesiologist Dr. Scott Reuben was exposed as the “Medical Madoff” for faking data in 21 scientific studies, leading to billions of dollars of profit for pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Merck, but harming the health of millions of patients worldwide. Even after learning that his research led to the development of drugs (Pfizer’s Celebrex and Bextra, and Merck’s Vioxx ) that were causing heart attacks and strokes, Reuben continued to publish his fraudulent “findings,” funded by Pfizer.
In that past, most articles published in major journals were independent studies conducted in universities, but today, however, Dr. Marcia Angell of Harvard Medical School reports, “it began to change as the pharmaceutical industry became richer, more powerful, more influential, and began to take over the sponsorship of probably most clinical research now.”
According to Dr. Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of Britain’s prestigious journal Lancet, “Much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Science has taken a turn towards darkness.”
Unfortunately, cannabis research is of course just as vulnerable to the sort of fraudulent studies, conflicts of interest, and the sloppy, biased, or doctored results that plagues scientific research today—and the hyped-up headlines that follow. In fact, in the last few years, rarely has more than a few months passed without some new anti-cannabis study dominating the headlines—a study that inevitably turns out to be deeply flawed, and of dubious origin.
A 2014 study by Professor Wayne Hall, for example, found what the anti-cannabis Daily Mail called “the terrible truth about cannabis,” that it is allegedly as addictive as heroin, and causes cancer, cognitive impairment, and psychosis. The problem, however, as others have argued, is that Hall is working less as a scientist and more as an anti-cannabis crusader who has, according to CLEAR (Cannabis Law Reform), a “long running association” with an anti-cannabis organization (NCPIC) that also happens to work with the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
Regardless of how a cannabis-doomsday “study” like this is packaged and sold, this is not science. It’s corporate propaganda. And it’s a threat to the credibility of scientists everywhere.
How the Cannabis Industry Can Win the War on Weed
Given the current movement to legalize medical marijuana across the country, it’s not hard to imagine the cannabis industry eventually triumphing over Big Pharma’s battle to keep cannabis as an illegal Schedule I narcotic. But would that be the end of their war on weed? Not likely.
It is in fact a mistake to believe that the federal legalization of either medical or recreational marijuana will do anything to subdue Big Pharma’s efforts to kill the competition from cannabis and, thereby, eliminate the threat to their bottom line. Legalization will likely force a change in strategy, but it won’t end the war on weed.
So, what can cannabis advocates, businesses, and consumers do to fight back? The most important thing to do is organize. The more organized and unified the cannabis industry the stronger our collective voice. The more powerful our voice, the more our interests will be taken into account in Congress, and in the state legislatures around the country.
Of course this includes working with one another, forming alliances and partnerships, joining boards, attending cannabis conferences and conventions, and networking across and around the cannabis industry. It also includes staying informed about new research, product developments, and policy issues around cannabis, as well as supporting the ongoing education of cannabis consumers.
But one of the best ways to fight back against any existing or potential threat to the cannabis industry is to get involved with and contribute to the leading cannabis advocacy groups, including (1.) National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), (2.) Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), (3.) National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), (4.) Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), (5.) Americans for Safe Access (ASA), (6.) American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), and (7.) Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).
In one way or another, these groups are all fighting for cannabis now. And they need our support in their ongoing work to educate and inform Americans, put pressure on our public officials, support pro-cannabis candidates in state and federal elections, and protect our right to enjoy cannabis without fear of law enforcement, asset forfeiture, prosecution, or prison.