Toronto-based medical cannabis startup Cannasat Pharmaceuticals is the latest magnet for both praise and scorn within the marijuana movement. Years from the release of its first cannabis-based medical product, the company has already generated considerable controversy and division within the marijuana community.
Although little information regarding the company has been officially released, its website states it is “committed to meeting the medical needs of patients through the development of high quality therapeutic cannabis products.”
Cannasat’s Vice President, Andrew Williams, told Cannabis Culture that his company’s forthcoming marijuana-based medicines will aim to treat “patients with conditions that cause pain, inflammation, spasticity and nausea, among others.”
Backed by Canadian media-mogul Moses Znaimer and clothing magnate Joseph Mimran, Cannasat is a self-proclaimed research and development company. According to Williams, “Over the next 20 years, Cannasat envisions an entirely new class of drugs being developed, approved, and made available ? not just in Canada, but around the world. We believe that the science associated with this plant and how it interacts with the human body will change healthcare as we know it.”
Activists on board
Of note to Canada’s med-pot community is the fact that three of its most dedicated and long-standing activists have taken positions with this new venture.
Toronto law professor and veteran activist Alan Young is one of Cannasat’s founders, and acts as a senior consultant. “We have been able to achieve monumental change in this country in relation to the medical use of marijuana by court challenges and aggressive litigation,” Young told Cannabis Culture. “However, the only real hope of transforming cannabis from an illicit substance into a recognized and accepted medicine is via costly and lengthy clinical research.”
Hilary Black, founder and former executive director of the BC Compassion Club Society (BCCCS), resigned her position with the pioneering compassion club to join Cannasat’s management team. Black remains with the BCCCS as a volunteer advisor.
“Cannasat is where I believe I can be most effective in facilitating the transition of the market for medicinal cannabis from an illicit to a licit one,” said Black. “The research we’re going to undertake is essential to ensuring that medicinal cannabis is understood by patients and physicians and accessible to all who may benefit.”
Dr Lester Grinspoon, the noted Harvard Medical School med-pot advocate and author of Marihuana, the Forbidden Medicine, acts as Cannasat’s medical advisor. When asked why he decided to join the startup, Grinspoon told Cannabis Culture, “I became interested in Cannasat because it has a broader view of possible cannabis applications and means of delivery, allowing it to make the best uses of the miraculous characteristics of this plant.”
Cannasat has met with resistance from some in the marijuana legalization and med-pot movements. Fearing many things ? including an end to med-pot growing exemptions, monopolization of the distribution of cannabis medicine, and the extinction of compassion clubs ? critics of Cannasat have been vocal about their concerns.
Vancouver-based pot seed entrepreneur Marc Emery, however, is an outspoken supporter of Cannasat. “All of the people involved in Cannasat, from the investment bankers to Alan and Hilary, are very talented people,” said Emery. “I think sprays, lozenges, and other methods of delivering whole plant extract are wonderful developments. I have no involvement with Cannasat, but its people are talented. They’ll bring medical cannabis to a large market that prefers whole plant extract over smoked bud.”
Prairie Plant partners
In mid-2004 Cannasat purchased a non-controlling minority interest in Prairie Plant Systems (PPS). PPS gained infamy within the medical marijuana community in 2000 when it was granted a five-year, $5.5 million contract by Health Canada to be the exclusive grower and provider of medicinal cannabis to Canadian federal exemptees.
The startup pharmaceutical intends to use PPS-grown marijuana in its research and clinical trials. Despite strong criticism of PPS by many in the movement in the past, Williams is bullish on the partnership.
“We expect our investment in PPS to be a good one for a number of reasons. While it is true that PPS is the only Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) compliant and biosecure cannabis production facility in Canada, the strength and track record of the PPS management team is really the key to this investment,” said Williams.
PPS owns and operates the controversial pot production facility in Flin Flon, Manitoba. This mine-based facility has been cited by many of its “customers” ? med-pot patients who possess Health Canada exemptions and purchase cannabis from the federal government ? as producing poor quality and even unsafe cannabis.
Phillippe Lucas, founder and director of the Vancouver Island Compassion Society (VICS), has been the most vocal critic of PPS weed. When asked what he thought of companies like Cannasat using the PPS-produced pot for research, Lucas urged caution. “Although I applaud private industry for developing cannabis-based treatments, I’m concerned that any clinical research done using poor quality, potentially unsafe cannabis will produce study results of questionable relevance to both the scientific community and end-users.”
But Young staunchly defends the PPS-Cannasat partnership. “Cannasat expects to invest millions of dollars in research and development. It is misguided to think that we will use anything but the highest quality products in these crucial activities. Furthermore, our lengthy investigation into the concerns expressed about the safety of PPS-produced product hasn’t uncovered any credible evidence that supports these allegations. PPS underground growth chambers are highly sophisticated, controlled, and clean, offering an excellent environment for growing plants,” said Young.
Newest of a small group
Cannasat isn’t alone in its quest to develop and market cannabinoid-based medicines for patients suffering from wasting syndromes, spasticity disorders and chronic pain. Both private and public companies in France, the UK, Israel and the US are working within this burgeoning market segment to make available legal cannabis-based products.
Marinol, for example, is a synthetic THC available in the form of a capsule. It is marketed to treat the nausea associated with chemotherapy and the appetite loss resulting from wasting syndromes such as AIDS. Ironically, patient testimonials have reported increased nausea and other significant negative side effects, tarnishing the drug’s reputation and marketability.
GW Pharmaceuticals recently introduced a new competitor to Marinol called Sativex. A mouth spray made using whole plant cannabis extracts, in December 2004 Sativex received conditional approval by Health Canada to distribute its medicine via doctor prescription.
“Sativex is not going to be the best way to use cannabis as medicine,” said Grinspoon, who considers the new drug to be more marketing than medicine. “In my opinion, Sativex, like Marinol, is not going to successfully compete against smoked or vaporized cannabis. It tastes so bad, people can’t hold it in their mouth long enough for absorption! It therefore becomes, like Marinol, a medication absorbed gastrointestinally that can’t be titrated. I don’t believe it will ever find much of a niche in cannabis therapeutics.”
Hopes and fears
Many within the marijuana movement fear that the results of Cannasat’s research will become proprietary trade secrets instead of entering the public domain. Such valuable information, opponents say, will be kept close to the corporate vest in the interest of profits, not patients.
In response, Williams explained, “In time, the community will know that the needs of patients is our top priority. We intend to share much of what we learn and to publish the results of our research in peer-reviewed medical journals.”
Whether a “passionate profit motive” will permeate Cannasat’s activities and eventual medical products remains to be seen. “As an experienced researcher and non-profit distributor of cannabis, I think it comes down to one key question,” concluded Lucas. “Do Canada’s critically and chronically ill deserve anything less than the safest, strongest, and highest quality medicine we can possibly offer them?”
? Cannasat Pharmaceuticals Inc: www.cannasat.ca