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On the eve of 4-20 the Unofficial National Marijuana Holiday, Governor Jim Justice signed into law Senate Bill 386 – “The West Virginia Medical Cannabis Act”. For a precious few, this was a moment of excitement and accomplishment after years of leaving the Legislative Session with nothing to show for their efforts. However, the low expectation of success and general lack of care and/or even communication from prominent national groups claiming to fight for legalization has led to a flurry of questions, rumors, and concerns about what this law will do for the state.

The primary goals of “WV Green is the New Black” are to inform, educate, and advocate with regards to cannabis as a medicine as well as an industry. If there was ever a need for those three things it is now. The bill signed by Governor Justice hardly even resembles the original bill proposed by Senator Ojeda early in the session. The loss of the proposed regulatory commission, patients no longer being able to grow for themselves, and the restrictions on how patients can take their medicine are just a few of the issues concerning West Virginia citizens. There does seem to be one idea dominating headlines and social media and it involves “Big Pharma”.

The state has plenty of reason to distrust pharmaceutical companies. We have seen companies like Purdue Pharma dump millions of pain killers into our communities and thousands of lives have been destroyed and lost because of it. It is hard to find someone in the state unaffected by opiate addiction, whether personally, with family members, or friends. However, the shortfalls of this bill don’t have to mean that the cycle will be repeated.

Can “Big Pharma” infiltrate the West Virginia Cannabis Industry, yes. Will they? Well, that is a different conversation and it’s one that will largely rely on how we as citizens choose to move forward.

 

“Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government…whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.”

— Thomas Jefferson, 1789

NOW, ON TO “BIG PHARMA”

The conflict between state and federal laws regarding marijuana legalization is the primary reason why it is unlikely for a large pharmaceutical company to get involved in the industry. That being said, pharmaceutical companies have been in the synthetic marijuana industry for over 30 years. In 1985, a synthetic version of THC called Marinol was approved by the FDA. This was the first of many conflicting messages from the Federal government regarding marijuana. On one hand, it is listed as Schedule 1 meaning it has “No known medical use”, yet the synthetic version somehow does (that is a conversation for another day).

Several other synthetic versions of cannabinoids, the individual chemical compounds derived from the plant, have been approved by the FDA and generally have been Schedule 2. In 2016, INSYS Pharmaceuticals donated $500,000 in Arizona to prevent the passing of recreational marijuana use due to the “marijuana’s safety hasn’t been demonstrated through the federal regulatory process”. It’s worth noting that INSYS is the manufacturer of Fentanyl, which is an incredibly potent opiate (50-100x stronger than morphine) and is largely responsible for the increase in opiate overdose deaths. Simultaneously, INSYS was obtaining FDA approval for their drug Syndros, a synthetic marijuana compound that has since been approved. Stories like this only further the distrust of the pharmaceutical industry and validate potential marijuana patients concerns.

Blocking legislation is a very real tactic and it has proven to be very effective, however, no pharmaceutical company to date has produced a non-synthetic marijuana medicine in the 21 years of medical marijuana availability. Does that mean that they won’t? Of course not, but it’s important to understand WHY they haven’t and that’s where the Federal vs. State law conflict comes into play.

For a pharmaceutical company to produce a non-synthetic marijuana product they would have to work in direct conflict with the FDA as well as the DEA, and that is likely to be bad for business. Let’s use Mylan, as our hypothetical example.

 

Quite an appropriate slogan, don't you think?

Quite an appropriate slogan, don’t you think?

 

  • Mylan reported revenue earnings of $11.08 Billion in 2016, $5.629 Billion of that was in North America.
  • Mylan produces products ranging from the lifesaving EpiPen to rocuronium bromide which is used for lethal injection executions in the US.
  • Mylan is a multi-national corporation operating the US, the Netherlands, and the UK among others. In two of those countries marijuana is federally illegal, this raises several issues with manufacturing, distribution, international trade laws, federal law enforcement, import/export regulation, etc.
  • By directly opposing the DEA and FDA Mylan would be potentially jeopardizing billions in revenue from already existing products.

For further analysis let’s assume the international community, the FDA, and DEA “look the other way” and don’t punish Mylan for manufacturing a federally illegal product. Which wouldn’t surprise many of those who fear a corporate takeover of the marijuana industry. What other hurdles exist?

At this time, it is illegal to transport marijuana across state lines. This means that a pharmaceutical company would have to set up farms to grow, testing facilities, manufacturing facilities, and find dispensaries willing to sell their products in each individual state that they operated in. Additionally, federal banking regulations make it very difficult to handle money made from marijuana which further complicates how a large pharmaceutical company would handle the process.

Can a large pharmaceutical company like Mylan with virtually unlimited resources overcome these issues, of course they can but is it worth the headache? West Virginia has a population of approximately 1.8 million, how many of those would be medical marijuana patients? 1%, 2%, 5%, even if it’s 10% that is only 180,000 people. That is a lot to the average small business but to a giant like Mylan that barely even registers when considering the set-up costs and risks of being involved in the marijuana industry.

Again, of course it is possible but based on what it would take to make it happen it doesn’t seem very likely. That doesn’t mean that we as citizens should let our guard down. It is our job to make sure that it doesn’t happen by remaining active and educated on the industry and the laws governing it. As far as WV Green is the New Black, we will continue to work with lawmakers and lobbyists to make this bill better through proposed amendments and by shining a light on anything that looks harmful. But ultimately it will take all of us to make the West Virginia Cannabis Industry the best it can possibly be.

“The remedy for speech that is false is speech that is true. This is the ordinary course in a free society. The response to the unreasoned is the rational; to the inunformed, the enlightened; to the straight-out lie, the simple truth.

— – Anthony Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice