Marijuana legalisation almost certainly is coming to Canada this year (though the July 1 start date seems to have been delayed), and United States legalisation seems inevitable, too. More than half of US states and their populations already approve medical use, and President Donald J. Trump has informally promised to respect state marijuana laws.
Germany also has a trial plan in place, and the World Health Organisation may loosen its restrictions on cannabis as well.
That doesn’t mean the US is maximising the money it can make from legal marijuana. According to Bloomberg News, America is “giving away” what could be a $31bn global medical marijuana market by 2021 by being too restrictive on marijuana research. (The only source of legal marijuana for research in the US is a 12-acre plot at the University of Mississippi.)
Israel already has a “booming” marijuana research sector and is expected to generate medical marijuana export revenue of between $28m and $112m annually. In Canada, the marijuana market is expected to surpass its liquor market by 2020.
Another source estimates the size of the entire medical marijuana market at almost $43m, with the overall marijuana market at almost $67m.
With greater legalisation comes greater benefits—including larger markets, less risk of violence and/or legal troubles, and easier banking—but also greater problems. Marijuana, even where legal, is still an outlaw business in the romantic sense. Some growers and sellers prefer the unregulated Wild West aspect of the business, and so dread the headaches of legalisation.
For one thing, legalisation may attract the interest of agricultural biotechnology companies such as Monsanto, call them “Big Farma”.
Rumors abound that some agritech giant such as Monsanto is about to release a GMO (genetically modified organism) form of marijuana. The companies deny this, but then they would regardless.
With legalisation comes litigation. Patents and corporate ownership don’t matter so much when the product is illegal under federal law (although there have been more than 750 marijuana-related patents issued since 1992, including at least one to the US Department of Health and Human Services in 2003).
Monsanto in particular, but agritech in general, is widely distrusted because it sues farmers who allege the company’s proprietary seed has drifted onto their land; denying claims that their pesticides drift onto neighbouring land killing crops that don’t have Monsanto’s pesticide immunity; and the development of GMO crops or “Frankenfoods”.
Some cannabis activists are already worried about corporate behemoths—one, in particular is raising alarm bells—gobbling up marijuana-related patents.
At the same time, intellectual property lawyers warn that companies that invest in new product development can be robbed of the fruits of the labour even when patented by inter partes reviews (IRPs).
There also is a fear among cannabis connoisseurs that the thousands of varieties of marijuana currently available could be supplanted by a few strains owned by Big Farma. As GQ put it, “artisanal marijuana” may give way to “corporate pot” that can more easily be monetised. A naturally occurring plant could be outlawed not by overzealous government prosecutors but for copyright infringement.
Reasons for GMO Cannabis
There are many reasons why Big Pharma and Big Farma like the idea of GMO and synthetic marijuana, but the main one, probably, is so they can make money from it.
Big Pharma has long opposed marijuana except in its own synthetic formulations. There’s no profit for pharmaceutical companies from a naturally growing product. Big Farma also thrives on developing proprietary versions of naturally occurring products. Monsanto is notorious for its pesticide-resistant crop seeds that need to be replanted every year with fresh seeds.
Another reason is to manipulate and standardise the amount of certain cannabinoids. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) are the two most prominent cannabinoids, but they have very different effects. And they aren’t the only cannabinoids in marijuana either.
THC is the main reason marijuana gets a user high, while CBD seems to be where most of the therapeutic effects (for the relief of pain, anxiety, post-traumatic stress) are located. If you want marijuana for its euphoria, you want high levels of THC; if you want it to deal with chronic pain or stress, you probably want more CBD.
CBD also seems to decrease the euphoria of naturally occurring marijuana, and may even ease the withdrawal symptoms during marijuana rehab.
Big Pharma can produce synthetic forms (such as dronabinol, a US FDA approved form of THC, available as brand names Marinol and Syndros), but natural forms of marijuana seem to have better results due to what is called the entourage effect. They work better together, even if it’s just a touch of THC.
Another company, 22nd Century Group is developing “zero-THC and optimised CBD marijuana“ for the medical marijuana market.
CBDV (cannabidivarin) is another non-euphoric cannabinoid which can treat epilepsy, autism, and neurodegenerative disorders. There’s not a lot of it in natural-occurring marijuana, but several agritech companies are working on increasing the yield through cellular agriculture, including Montreal’s Hyasynth Bio and GW Pharmaceuticals.
GW also has US Food and Drug Administration approval for an epilepsy drug for children containing CBD but not THC. To make cannabis practical for medical use, users need to know what they’re getting, both as to balance and dosage. Artisanal strains can be all over the place.
The drawbacks of GMO is that many people in the US and Europe don’t trust them, and cannabis fanciers are probably a higher percentage than the general population.
If a handful of Big Pharma and Big Farma companies manage to corner the market through patents, the ideal of legal cannabis with low crime, tax revenue, and a tolerable level of government regulation could lead to a resurgent black market—maybe a more violent one because corporate attorneys would probably be less likely to overlook violations than the federal government has been.
That could be the worst of both worlds.
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