Prescription highs

Pharmaceutical companies growing pot is no longer a hippie conspiracy

Contradictory time for the drug war?

Contradictory time for the drug war?

PHOTO illustration by WILLIAM LEUNG

Despite the U.S. government’s staunch opposition to medical-cannabis farms, the feds have begun licensing a whole lot of large, legal pot grows throughout the country. But this weed is not for cannabis dispensaries and their patients. It’s for mega drug companies.

The Drug Enforcement Administration explained last week that 55 unnamed companies now hold licenses to grow cannabis in the United States, a fact that contradicts the widespread belief that there is only one legal pot farm in America, operated under DEA supervision and for research purposes. It appears as if the upswing in federally approved pot farming is about feeding the need of pharmaceutical companies, who want to produce a generic version of THC pill Marinol and at least one other cannabis-based pill for a wide variety of new uses.

In other words, if big corporations grow cannabis with the government and put it in a pill, it’s medicine. But if you grow it at home or at a city-permitted pot farm and then put it in a vaporizer, it’s a federal crime.

“They’ve got to realize, as a political issue, this is going to raise a red flag,” argued Kris Hermes, spokesman for medical-marijuana lobby Americans for Safe Access. “Here we have companies cultivating marijuana on a mass scale to produce generic Marinol. It’s going to force the government to answer more questions than it wants to.”

It’s a weird piece of news that comes at a strange and contradictory time for the drug war. As U.S. attorneys send threatening letters to states and cities warning them against “commercial cultivation” of marijuana, the DEA is quietly handing out licenses for commercial cultivation.

The schism has its roots in the ’70s and the drug war under President Richard Nixon, who ignored his staff’s recommendations and named cannabis one of the most dangerous drugs in America under the Controlled Substances Act. Cannabis has remained a so-called “Schedule I” controlled substance, alongside heroin.

Today, 16 states defy the Controlled Substances Act and allow qualified patients to access the drug.

In 2002, activists again tried to reschedule the cannabis plant. Today, they still await word on their petition, which is why they’re attempting in a Washington, D.C., circuit court to get the DEA to rule on the matter.

“The federal government’s strategy has been delay, delay, delay,” said Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access, in an emailed statement last week.

But while the government has stalled on rescheduling a cheap, patentless pain remedy with fewer toxic side effects than Advil or Tylenol, regulators are proving to be more than happy to accommodate pharmaceutical company’s efforts to muscle in on pot.

Marinol, however, has never worked well with cancer patients, doctors say. Effects vary widely. With at least 66 different cannabinoids in smoked pot, patients report THC-only Marinol doesn’t provide the same relief.

And so, drug companies want to bring generic THC and CBD to new markets and have requested that the DEA allow them to grow pot and put organic THC and CBD in pills, according to DEA records posted online last fall. But that requires the DEA to move organic THC down from Schedule I, where it is now, to Schedule III, where synthetic-THC Marinol currently is.

The federal government has already boosted its marijuana production capability by 900 percent, to 4.5 million grams, according documents obtained by Americans for Safe Access. The most famous federally approved pot grower, Dr. Mahmoud ElSohly, has also testified that he has begun legally selling THC extracted from his Mississippi pot farm to the drug company Mallinckrodt.

Big Pharma’s move on the pot industry isn’t some 40-year-old hippie conspiracy theory. It’s here.