There's a monopoly on marijuana growing and research in America

August 08, 2009

Dave Stancliff, Times-Standard

I'd like you to meet Dr. Mahmoud ElSohly, the only person in the United States who can grow tons of marijuana and not worry the Feds will bust him.

If your company wants to do research on marijuana, he's the guy to see. Dr. ElSohly's lab at the University of Mississippi has an exclusive contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which supplies the pot to approved researchers who study its ill effects.

Despite the federal government's efforts to suppress marijuana's positive aspects for the last 72 years, researchers everywhere watch with interest as Big Pharma gets involved with the controversial herb and its therapeutic qualities.

And why not? There's a lot of money involved. Without fanfare, three legal drugs made with THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, are on the market. You may have heard of Marinol, a synthetic THC in capsules that has been around since 1986. A Belgian firm, Solvay Pharmaceuticals, manufacturers Marinol and some generic versions are also coming out. The second legal use of a pot pharmaceutical is Cesamet, produced by Valeant Pharmaceuticals, a multi-national company with corporate headquarters in Aliso Viejo, Calif. Cesamet is used to treat chemotherapy nausea. Out since 2006, it contains nabilone, a synthetic analog of THC.

Our neighbor Canada legalized Sativex, a whole-cannabis-extract spray produced by the British firm GW Pharmaceuticals. It is absorbed by the mucous membranes under the tongue and inside the cheek. It's marketed as a pain reliever and researchers in the U.S. are looking at its applications for cancer pain.

I think companies worldwide are beginning to see the possibilities of pot because of the growing acceptance of medical marijuana in America. Legalization is now openly considered by politicians in California. National polls show a growing acceptance of marijuana use, both for medicine and recreation.

Five of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies are openly looking into pot's therapeutic possibilities. That probably means they are all looking at it and some are more secretive than others.

”That is all proprietary information,” said Paul Armentano of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). He also said the public will not be made aware of all the cannabinoid-based drug research until it's close to market-ready.

According to Dr. George Kunos, scientific director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at the National Institute of Health, there are about 18 cannabinoid-related compounds under active pharmaceutical development.

Why doesn't Big Pharma in America take advantage of what some pharmaceutical-marketing newsletters suggest is the next big blockbuster for the industry? One reason is having to overcome government restrictions. Another is the need for exclusive ownership.

Johnson & Johnson has publicly stated that they are not researching cannabinoid drugs and a company spokesman said it was “not aware of any” other companies doing so. Only Sativex is close to U.S. availability, and has been researched here for years.

That brings us back to Dr. ElSohly, who has had an exclusive contract with NIDA for nearly 40 years. His contract calls for studies that aim to show the bad effects of marijuana abuse. So you know the mind-set there. Several well-known researchers who want to research medical marijuana have been denied.

So what is our top marijuana-dealer, Dr. ElSohly, doing with his U.S. government monopoly on cannabis research? Funny you should ask. He's working with Mallinckrodt, a British company with offices throughout the United States, to develop a plant-extract form of Marinol.

This has brought him under fire by Americans for Safe Access who charge him with “benefiting from such a monopoly by financially profiting from the research and sale of cannabis-based pharmaceuticals.”

Yes, the good doctor has been busy and he's also patented a suppository containing THC hemisuccinate, which breaks down into THC when absorbed by the body. Frankly, I don't see this as a popular delivery system. Just a hunch.

The good news is that numerous countries are doing studies to uncover the many exciting possibilities for cannabis and the cannabinoids. For example, researchers at Complutense University in Madrid found that THC causes brain-cancer cells to destroy themselves.

As It Stands, what can be done about this monopoly that has hindered marijuana research in our country for so long?



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