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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Pharma's frankenweed

Drug company greed on track to turn herbal healer into weight loss aid

NOW Magazine (Toronto)

Big Pharma will sink all its resources into creating synthetics and never study the whole plant.

I attended the annual Christmas party for the Toronto Compassion Centre this past Sunday.

Some people still express skepticism about the medical value of marijuana. But scientists have started to conduct extensive research into pot's diverse medical applications. The government of Canada has not warmly embraced its court-ordered role as pot trafficker. It's hoping that the private sector will step in.

But leaving the development of this important medicine to the pharmaceutical industry, or in the hands of government regulators, does not bode well for the future.

In all likelihood, marijuana will be reduced to a single-compound white powder, and the synthetic compound will never be tested against the whole, natural plant to determine if the powder is as effective.

In the past few years, there has been increasing public awareness that the art and science of healing has been corrupted by the aggressive cost-recovery practices of large multinational corporations. As global pharmaceutical sales approach the trillion-dollar level, many stories have emerged of doctors being bullied into publishing results supportive of drug approval and being bribed and induced to prescribe new drugs.

When medicine is driven by business objectives, the healing perspective becomes completely skewed.

It has been reported that in Canada the cost of inappropriate prescriptions exceeds $2 billion a year and that the incidence of adverse drug reactions is continually increasing.

The drug approval process in Canada may be rigorous and demanding, but if Big Pharma needs to bring a drug to market quickly to offset enormous research expenditures, it will often opt to take ethical shortcuts to enter the market. It is now common knowledge that Big Pharma tried to suppress test results showing that certain anti-depressants, including Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil, were less effective than a placebo in many cases.

Big Pharma now sees cannabinoid medicine as the new blockbuster. These companies continue to resist development of herbal products, and their work with cannabis invariably focuses instead on synthetic derivatives and analogs.

Clinical research is now flourishing, but the products being developed bear little relationship to cannabis sativa. Researchers are confirming that cannabinoid products, with inspiring names like HU320, LV319 and CP945, can provide diverse symptom relief for pain, nausea, spasticity and other infirmities. Last year Spanish and Israeli scientists made a breakthrough discovery when a cannabinoid derivative showed tumour-reducing properties. Of course, we have also found that cannabis is an excellent appetite stimulant, and having the munchies can be a lifesaver for patients wasting away from the devastation of chemotherapy or antiretroviral therapy.

With all the promising medical applications for cannabis, it is ludicrous that the most extensive clinical research currently being conducted is for the development of anti-obesity cannabinoid drugs. Sanofi-Aventis is poised to bring the synthetic cannabinoid antagonist, Rimonabant, to market to combat obesity.

There is little doubt that obesity is a major health concern in overdeveloped nations. But we do not need a pill to fight overeating. It would be of far greater societal value to develop cannabis for pain relief or anti-emetic relief and leave the battle of the bulge to exercise and proper diet.

Of course, the same sedentary existence that may contribute to being overweight can be exploited by Big Pharma to guarantee big sales of a quick-fix, pop-in-the-mouth solution to the problem. It is good business to medicalize social and behavioural problems.

If Big Pharma is unlikely to develop herbal cannabis products, we could turn to the government.

By wrongly classifying marijuana as an illicit drug, the government has effectively provided itself with a monopoly over the production of cannabis. Health Canada operates one of the largest grow ops in the world in Flin Flon. Perhaps it should take the initiative to bring this valuable plant into the conventional pharmacopeia. This is unlikely to happen, and even if it did we would likely see the same profit-driven recklessness that corrupts private sector drug development.

Just look at the gambling feeding frenzy that has taken place in Canada since the Criminal Code was amended to give the provinces the power to conduct and manage large-scale gambling operations. Dozens of casinos and thousands of video lottery terminals define the Canadian landscape and bring over $13 billion into provincial coffers.

And just like the pharmaceutical industry, the government-run gaming industry has its own escalating list of adverse reactions, as it faces mounting lawsuits from problem gamblers who believe they've been exploited by the industry. Marijuana may not be addictive, but I'm sure the government would find some way to inflate the costs and deflate the effect of this inexpensive plant intoxicant.

Despite my concerns, I still recognize that the future of marijuana as medicine lies with private sector research and development. I also recognize that this is a slow and costly process that may lead to the marketing of unnecessary or ineffective drugs.

Money will be made, but the real potential of marijuana may not be fully developed. As it stands today, thousands of patients have improved their quality of health and life by buying pot from compassion clubs that are not regulated by government and are not driven by the dream of making a profit of mythical proportions.

Doctors can be life-savers, and Big Pharma has produced life-saving pills, but sometimes people cannot, and should not, have to wait for government and business to give their seal of approval to the means chosen to alleviate pain and suffering.

Alan Young is a professor of law at Osgoode Hall. His column appears every other week. He has served as a consultant to Cannasat Therapeutics Inc.


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