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Do Pharmaceutical Companies Support Marijuana Prohibition?

For most drug policy reformers, the answer is probably an exasperated "duh," but a fascinating piece at Huffington Post from NORML's Paul Armentano raises some very plausible doubts about the popular theory that the pharmaceutical industry is pushing pot prohibition to kill competition.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing before forming an opinion, but here are the basic points as I understand them:

1. Pharmaceutical companies are vigorously pursuing patents on various marijuana components and derivatives for a great variety of potential medical applications. Given the rigorous and heavily politicized FDA approval process they'll ultimately need to pass, there's no sense in indulging anti-marijuana hysteria within the government bureaucracy.

2. These products will ultimately be marketed to a populace that has been spoon-fed mindless anti-pot propaganda for decades. Since the origins of the coming generation of marijuana-based medicines will be widely known, their manufacturers have an interest in marijuana being trusted, rather than feared, within the marketplace.

3. Pharmaceutical companies understand that marijuana can never live up to its reputation as a panacea that can replace modern medicine. This is true because most people don't smoke it, and most people don’t want their medicines grown on a tree. Conditions in places where medical marijuana is currently widely available demonstrate this.

4. Government bureaucrats, police and prison lobbies, and voters who've succumbed to drug war propaganda are the real forces behind marijuana prohibition.

Paul also observes the important role marijuana reform efforts have played in fostering a climate in which marijuana-based medicines have become recognized as viable. Only by breaking down bit by bit the barrier of hysteria surrounding marijuana have we been able to set a tone in which medical marijuana research can be discussed rationally in the public domain. There are exceptions, of course, but now that the science and the will of the voters can speak for themselves, corporate profiteers associate marijuana with dollar signs, not reefer madness.

It has also been proposed by some in the reform movement that pharmaceuticalized marijuana may lead to a crack down on the medical use of herbal marijuana, as corporate profiteers pressure police to purge their most obvious competitor. I reject that notion for a couple reasons: 1) the marketing of new marijuana-based medicines will have a trickle-down effect of politically legitimizing pre-existing medical marijuana activity. 2) We can't afford to bust 'em now, we won't be able to afford to bust 'em then. 3) The risk of jury nullification when bringing medical marijuana cases to trial is substantial and will remain so.

Finally, though Paul doesn't address this, many people have cited instances of pharmaceutical companies supporting organizations like Partnership For a Drug Free America as evidence of their complicity in the war on marijuana. I've attempted to research this in the past and couldn't find anything worth our time. The story died on my desk. To the extent that pharmaceutical companies fund so-called "anti-drug" advocacy, I now believe it has nothing to do with marijuana, but rather with a desire to proactively cover their asses for the destructive effects of the legal drugs they themselves manufacture and market.

So, I believe Paul's analysis should probably replace much of the conventional wisdom that currently exists on this issue. Unless other evidence emerges, or other experts of Paul Armentano's caliber (few exist), emerge to convincingly challenge his assertions, the burden of proof placed on those blaming Big Pharma for marijuana prohibition has been raised several notches today. If this helps us to refocus our advocacy towards other more demonstrable, palatable, and persuasive arguments for reform, that would be a good thing.
Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Why Can't We End at least THE MEDICAL PROHIBITION?

Here's an interesting link on the funding for Drug Free America 1988 - 91 that you've probably already seen.

I don't know how accurate it is. But it might help to explain why some people believe big pharma & other big industry has something to do with medical marijuana prohibition.

I know I've been able to replace quite a few very expensive medications with medical marijuana (few thousand a year that goes to my "caregiver" that would've gone to a pill company).

But then again, pharma could stand to make TONS of money from their stuff that'll likely be less safe than cannabis and not as effective as the real thing for all patients. Maybe Big Pharma realizes they'll never be able to compete with real cannabis; so they are making sure the very stiff competition, the whole plant, is eliminated, while they rush to pharmaceuticalize cannabis? I don't really have a clue.

People are grasping for a behind-the-scenes understaninding of why we cannot get around the medical prohibition of this wonderful plant, when there is so much medical & public support for medical marijuana.

The times they are a changin

Hi Scott:

That this topic has even coalesced is testament to the actual successes that the reform lobby is having.

Let me address your points until I get the time to read the entire Armentano essay.

First, I think a good hard political push at congress this summer, now, would end marijuana prohibition. Medical marijuana at least would quickly be regulated in both herbal and pharmaceutical forms.

The pharmaceutical companies give money to the anti drug groups because it is part of their lobby effort to get on the good side of congress. A-holes like Mark Souder will tell the big pharma lobbyists to give to the anti drug cause as a proxy for giving to him.

If we make prohibition a political liability for the more rational politicians it will also become a liability for lobbyists to support it. This is why its so important to show support for third party and Independent candidates. Established political groupings of voters that all advocate drug policy reform. The lobbyists see our accumulated voter support and tailor their lobby efforts to take advantage of the sentiments of the politicians that they seek to influence. Politicians who are influenced by the issues important to large enough groups of discontented voters. Obama trivialized Nader as no more than 2-3%. But look at the accumulated vote value of the Libertarians, Greens and Nader Independents. 8-10-12% of the electorate among them? All who oppose the war on drugs. I am sure our members of congress ARE looking at this and it is making them think.

We could be the biggest of the swing vote in the presidential election if we kicked some political ass now. This summer during the presidential campaigns.

The companies have been extracting and purifying organic compounds from nature for centuries and the American public is well acculturated to medicines from plants. It is more important for the companies to create trust in the materials. There is no better way to do that than to have an over the counter mass market version in the forms of medical/herbal and recreational pot.

If you can provide us with an ongoing list of companies that are researching cannabis derivatives, both U.S. and international, we can start looking for ways to encourage them to support our arguments more than they do the prohib argument today.


But I'd still love to see Melvin and Betty Sembler's stock portfolio.


police live of the big titty of big pharma and do thiere dirty work of elimanting compiticion

re: wtf

If your a real person , It's people like yourself that forget to spell check that scare the hell out of people who subscribe to, you'll get brain damage from MJ use.

Tangled web

[email protected],Vancouver,B.C.Canada Who can figure out the anti drug lobby?Everything is about money.What remains is to convince them that prohibition isn't such a good deal.There are so many people making big bucks off of drug prohibition.Telling them about the lives they're destroying just doesn't make any impression on them at all.

spurious connection

Pharmaceutical cos. supported the Media Partnership because it was someone else's idea seen at the time as non-controversial, period. They just thought they were contributing to a "good deed" that would get them good p.r. The Partnership focused for many years on marijuana because the people in charge of it (who came from the advertising industry, not drugs) made an effort to counter just those drugs (that and cocaine at the time) which were thought to have the most favorable reputations. So the association of the drug industry and anti-pot is spurious.

If they had thought at the time that people would connect donations to anti-pot publicity with a desire to exploit cannabinoids for $, they'd've stayed away from it like the plague.

If you look over the past century plus, in the great majority of cases the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry has fought drug regulation, because it cuts into their business and imposes costs on them. The drug distributing business has been a completely different matter.


It's screaming obvious that Pharma is behind keeping Cannibus "down". That's as common sense as it gets. Anyone that doesn't think so is a fool.

Big Pharm Law Firm Big Into Drug Policy

Covington and Burling- big pharm, food, cigarette, Holder, Breuer Firm Which Has Advised the Drug Policy Foundation!

What i know

I'm on antidepressants, mood stabilizers, antipsychotics and sleep meds. These drugs have a fraction of a fraction the effectiveness that marijuana has for me. The list of side effects I suffer from is ridiculously long (and incredibly miserable) while the side effects from pot are virtually nill. But the most telling thing is the cost. My legal, doctor and government approved medication, which are not covered by my health insurance, cost 10 times what it costs me to buy marijuana. Even more ridiculous when you take into account that the cost of marijuana (because it is illegal) is inflated possibly ten times (or more) what it would cost if it were legal. Is it really such a stretch to believe the pharm industry would be threatened by that? Because I'd drop every single one of their medications in a heartbeat if marijuana were legalized. They would lose all my business. Believe me the biggest threat they face is the legalization of marijuana. They can't patent it. I can grow it myself. Its cheap. Its effective. None of which they can deliver on. How is this a mystery?

Um, Drug-Based is not the same as the drug.

Patenting derivatives from plants for profit is exactly what phara does and has been doing forever. That's not at all the same as supporting the legalization of a plant that anybody can grow, now, is it?


When you consider cannabis’s well-established therapeutic versatility; its amazing safety profile; and its potential future applications (cannabis’s potential as an anticancer agent, for instance), cannabis stands to put a serious hurtin’ on the Pharmaceutical Industries’ Lowest Line (PILL), over time.

Now, cannabis won’t be a serious contender overnight, and the vast majority of Americans will indeed continue buying their FDA-stuff and shoveling down tons of it every year. And many patients will receive great, almost miraculous, benefit from many FDA-approved pharmaceuticals.

However, while there are some highly effective FDA/Big Pharma medicines out there, FDA’s stuff kills over one hundred thousand patients each year -- at least -- even when the pharmaceuticals are properly prescribed and properly administered, according to an eye-opening JAMA meta-analysis. Another way of putting this is FDA-approved medicines have become a major cause of death in the U.S. And the FDA’s options grossly injure thousands of more patients.

As more and more patients begin to see and experience that many of the most-used FDA-pharmaceutical companies have a ridiculously long list of possible serious side effects, including death, more and more patients will begin demanding safer, non-lethal medicine, which will create a serious market for medicinal cannabis that will continue to steadily grow.

Plus, so far, all of Mid-to-Big-Pharma’s cannabis-inspired medicines, even including the botanically-based Sativex, have not been as effective as the real deal - untouched, whole plant cannabis with all of the 100+healing cannabinoids. And since you cannot patent “natural source material,” the real deal cannabis will always be stiff competition for FDA medicines, even for FDA medicines that are cannabis-inspired.

Furthermore, real, whole plant cannabis cannot cause lethal reactions -- a HUGE selling point; and according to the Journal of Opioid Mgt, cannabis has many “distinct pharmacologic properties, including analgesic, antiemetic, antispasmodic, antioxidative, neuroprotective, antidepressant, anxiolytic, and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as the capacity for glial cell modulation and tumor growth regulation. Their application in pain management is especially promising as cannabinoids inhibit pain in “virtually every experimental pain paradigm” in supraspinal, spinal, and peripheral regions.” [END QUOTE from Journal of Opioid Management - May/June 2009 - "Medicinal Use of Cannabis in the United States: Historical Perspectives, Current Trends, and Future Directions"]

With this amazing array of distinct pharmacological properties, there is substantial potential for cannabis to be used for a wide array of symptoms and clinical conditions, which will steadily replace or reduce FDA/Big Pharma pharmaceuticals, for many patients.

In my medical situation, the medicinal use of cannabis has completely replaced my anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, antiemetic, antianxiety and antidepressant pharmaceuticals, and has reduced my opioid medicine by approximately 95 percent. That’s a lot of money that the pharmaceutical industry loses to medicinal cannabis competition, when you consider many patients are dropping FDA medicines for safer medicine, like cannabis.

As national polls continue to illustrate that approximately 75-80 percent of Americans support access to medicinal cannabis, it clear that there is a lot of public support and public curiosity about this ancient medicine.

If medicinal cannabis were legal on the federal level, and state medicinal cannabis laws and states' rights were truly honored by the FEDS, it would put a serious dent into the pharmaceutical/FDA market, over time.

No doubt about it.

And I admit that I don’t know the veracity of this claim, but a while back, a few members of Congress were supposedly caught meeting and colluding with Big Pharma to fight initiatives to legalize the medicinal use of cannabis, according to Jack Herer’s “Emperor Wears No Clothes ”

Now, why is NORML trying to conceal or obscure the fact that real deal cannabis will indeed be serious competition for big pharma? Are they selling out mother nature’s recipe for the new line of "pharmaceuticalized" cannabis-inspired medications, which have yet to match cannabis’s healing properties?

NORML’s recent “pharmaceuticalization” agenda and recent attacks on cannabis medibles are beginning to smell VERY fish and VERY wrong.

borden's picture

Most of the comment appearing

Most of the comment appearing above was interesting, but the attack on NORML, like most attacks I see on reform organizations, is both uninformed and stupid. It's also a violation of our guidelines. If you want to participate in our forums, don't attack reform organizations. If it happens again from now on I'll just delete the entire comment.

"Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food" Hippocrates

Senate and Pot Brownies: Bill Could Double Trouble for Medical Marijuana Treats

(CBS Health Blog August 2, 2010 ) Medical marijuana users may not have the option of taking a spoonful of sugar with their medicine if a new Senate bill makes it through the House.

Last Thursday, the Senate passed a bill that would double the penalties for people who sell drug-infused sweets.

The bill has garnered support from unexpected quarters. Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), says that "those who say marijuana is medicine had better be prepared to market it as such - and not as candy."

Further, says St. Pierre, those who sell pot-infused brownies, cookies and other "medical edibles," or "medibles," have reason to be worried, because, in his opinion, the bill is written broadly enough to include them.

As written, the "Saving Kids From Dangerous Drug Act," introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, would increase penalties two-fold for those who make or sell marijuana that is:

  • combined with a candy product;
  • marketed or packaged to appear similar to a candy product; and
  • modified by flavoring or coloring the controlled substance with the intent to distribute, dispense, or sell the controlled substance to a person under 18 years of age."

Medical edibles are a very significant part of the multi-billion dollar medical marijuana industry, says St.Pierre.

And some people cross the line, especially in advertising, he says.

Some alternative papers run ads for pot in four different ice-cream flavors.  "It has a child-like appeal," he says of one such ad. "I don't think that was the notion of people who put out this ad, but that's what it looks like." [End of Article]

It is not a violation of the guidelines to simply ask why is NORML involved in efforts to increase penalties two-fold for people who make medical cannabis candies? This is an extremely valid question, and censoring debate or discussion regarding the direction reforms groups are heading is counter productive.





CBS Blog Wrong on NORML'S position!

It appears the aforementioned CBS Health Blog article seriously misrepresented NORML'S position on Feinstein's grandstanding "protect the children" from medicinal edibles spiel. I found the following response on NORML'S great website [direct response]:

[Allen St. Pierre responds: The CBS blog is incorrect. NORML does not support the passage of Feinstein's legislation. NORML does not support legislation or initiatives that increase penalties for cannabis. The CBS blogger conflated NORML's support for children not having unauthorized access to cannabis into supporting the bill.]

RE: Borden/"Most of the comments appearing..."

Questioning any organization's intents should not be censored in this country. I fully support NORML's efforts and am a strong advocate for legalization of medicinal and recreational marijuana. But I'm disappointed at your reaction to a comment/critique/question. Are we not supposed to "question everything"? It's a mark of insecurity that you would feel the need to react in the way that you did. If the commenter is wrong, you can always respond by correcting them. Threatening to censor/delete someone is equally "wrong".

borden's picture

Lori, there are other web

Lori, there are other web sites people can go to slander and attack good activists who are trying to help the world. The 1st amendment protects that, at least depending on how far it goes. But we have no obligation either morally or legally to fund it through this forum, which is for reform efforts, not for attacks on people. Perhaps you're just not familiar with the kind of poison that careless or misguided or occasionally dishonest people will post sometimes. I think it's a bad thing, and this is not the place for it.

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