On May 21, 2003, GW Pharmaceuticals announced their marketing partnership with Bayer AG. GW Pharmaceuticals and Bayer AG have entered into an exclusive marketing agreement for GW’s cannabis-based medicinal extract product, to be marketed under the brand name Sativex.
Bayer has obtained exclusive rights to market Sativex in the UK. In addition, Bayer has the option for a limited period of time to negotiate the marketing rights in other countries in the European Union and selected other countries around the world, excluding the US.
Bayer and GW are teaming up to provide a “medically acceptable cannabis-derived product” for the treatment of Multiple Sclerosis and severe neuropathic pain. The product is a whole plant medicinal cannabis extract containing THC, which GW has given the brand name “Tetranabinex” and CBD, which GW calls “Nabidiolex,” as its principal components. The medicine is administered by means of a spray into the mouth.
Dr Geoffrey Guy, Executive Chairman of GW, told the media: “We are delighted to have entered into this partnership with Bayer. It is GW’s first commercial collaboration and marks the start of a new phase in the company’s history. As a leading global pharmaceutical company, Bayer is well placed to maximize the market opportunity for GW’s product.”
Bayer is indeed “well placed.” It is currently ranked sixth in global chemical sales, first or second in “agricultural chemical” sales, sells about $11 billion US worth of “health care” products per year and does about $30 billion in total sales per annum.1
According to Reuters, Bayer will pay GW up to 25 million pounds ($41 million US) for exclusive rights to market Sativex in Britain. Dr Guy told Reuters he was comfortable with analyst forecasts of peak annual sales of 250 million pounds in initial markets of Europe and Canada. Shares in GW shot up on news of the deal.
Cannabis: “new” and “distinct”
There are indications that this partnership could allow GW to attempt a medical cannabis monopoly. Even if GW does not move in this direction, some other company will likely do so.
In an interview with Pot-TV, law professor Ikechi Mgbeoji of the University of British Columbia agreed that it was possible that big drug companies could try to patent currently illegal medicinal plants, such as poppies, coca and cannabis. These plants, or extracts thereof, could be reintroduced with the claim that they’ve been gone from the market long enough to qualify as “new” and “distinct” species under the 1961 Plant Patent Act, and thus be subject to patent law.
Professor Mgbeoji explained: “There is in fact the possibility that, if the use of cannabis is decriminalized, and some of the varieties that had been known to farmers who farmed in secret are now available to those with the means, it is possible that they could lay claims to have discovered these strains… they can in fact apply and obtain plant variety protection.”
Attempts have already been made by others to patent the ayahuasca vine (a tool for hallucination and visions), the neem tree (a powerful antibiotic) and tumeric (an anti-inflammation tool and the main ingredient in curry). These attempts to patent natural plants have had varying degrees of success, depending on the amount of opposition.2
Canada’s patent law ? unlike that in the US ? does not allow as much latitude to patent medicinal plants outright. Canada requires some “purification” process here first. Hence, in Canada we will see the THC patented as “Tetranabinex” and CBD patented as “Nabidiolex.” The outright strain patent on, say, “Panama Red” would be reserved for the US.
Mgbeoji warned that Bayer could attempt to “‘polish up’ the cruder aspects of the whole thing [marijuana]and repackage it as a new invention and put a patent on it. The same thing was done with Aspirin.”
The Plant Patent Act was written the same year as the first global drug law ? the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs ? and may very well be designed to create a medicinal plant monopoly. 1961 was also the year of the Thalidomide scandal ? where a synthetic sedative for pregnant mothers (arguably a cannabis substitute) was linked to birth defects in the western world.
This was the origin of the expensive “safety and efficacy tests” that determine if pills (and now herbs) are allowed on the legal market. 1961 may mark the start of the shift away from a medicine monopoly through synthetics, and the start of a medicine monopoly through patents. Who wants to keep all their monopoly money wrapped up in pills when it looks like everyone will soon see that herbs do it cheaper, more effectively and without birth defects?
Incidentally, 1962 was the year Bayer, Hoechst, and BASF established the Codex Alimentarius Commission ? an attempt at a monopoly on all the herbs and vitamins.3
Bad, bad Bayer
Bayer has been named as one of the 10 worst corporations in the world.
Multinational Monitor, a Washington DC based monthly magazine founded by Ralph Nader, named Bayer among the 10 worst corporations of 2001. Bayer won their title by overcharging the US government and public for the anti-anthrax drug Cipro, as well as dangerous peddling of antibiotics for poultry (contributing to antibiotic resistance among humans) and its harassment of the Coalition Against Bayer-Dangers, which had set up a website with materials on Bayer. The Coalition has renamed its website BayerWatch.
In my opinion and that of many others, Bayer’s history marks it as one of the worst corporations on Earth. They are generally known as the inventors and propagators of aspirin, heroin, mustard gas, forced labor, the Nazi party, Zyklon B, death labor, Tabun and Sarin nerve gas, Parathion, Codex Alimentarus, Cipro, Baycol, Baygon, Fenthion, Baysiston, TDI Olaqunidox, PPA’s, PCB’s and other such wonders.
Bayer has the worst ethical track record of any company this author knows of. They even hired Nazi doctor Josef Mengele to test their drugs on some of their slave laborers at IG Auschwitz ? their very own death camp! From aspirin onwards, Bayer’s record shows a pattern of unethical behavior. So cannabis activists should be concerned that this company is now the largest distributor of a major marijuana-based medicine.
In his essay On the Pharmaceuticalization of Marijuana, Dr Lester Grinspoon points out that those who are developing these synthetic cannabinoids and trackable delivery methods are relying on cannabis prohibition to keep them free of competition from cheap, natural cannabis.
“The commercial success of new cannabinoid products will depend to a considerable extent on how vigorously the prohibition against marijuana is enforced,” writes Grinspoon, pointing out that pharmaceutical companies would likely be less motivated to develop their cannabinoid products “if they had to compete with natural marijuana on a level playing field; that is, if marijuana were legally available as a medicine.”
These drug companies are trying to convince us that, instead of picking from the best-bred pot grown in the world’s various growing regions, instead of trying different-tasting and smelling Sativas and Indicas for their various effects, we should study and use only brand-name cannabinoids, such as Synhexal (the first synthetic cannabis medicine), or Marinol, Dronabinol, Nabalone, Cecemet, and now Tetranabinex and Nabidiolex.
Because of the financial realities of their situation, these companies cannot truly support an end to cannabis prohibition, as legal marijuana would affect their profits. Many people would not want to use an expensive synthetic pill or computerized delivery device when a cheap, easy and effective plant-based medicine is readily available.
Every activist and cannabis-lover must be extremely careful when dealing with companies such as Bayer and GW. There very well may be some benefit to isolating cannabis compounds or utilizing spray mechanisms. However, these benefits could be more than offset by the drawbacks of having our med-pot access limited to brand name extracts and synthetic cannabinoids.
We must not let these companies, or anyone else, patent and own the cannabis plant’s genetics. And we must not rest until natural, raw cannabis is grown openly and freely available to all in need.
1) Chemical Week Magazine Oct. 30th, 2002, p. 14; Chemical Market Reporter Jan. 28 2002; and the International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 41, 2000
2) Patents and Traditional Knowledge of the Use of Plants: Is a Communal Patent Regime Part of the Solution to the Scourge of Bio Piracy? Ikechi Mgbeoji, Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, Fall 2001, Volume 9, Issue 1, p.171