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Is Big Pharma Trying to Take All the Fun out of Pot?

Drug researchers are trying to replicate marijuana's therapeutic effects, but without the "side effect" of getting people high.

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Pfizer and Merck Sharp & Dohme, which had similar drugs in Phase III trials, suspended their development as well. Solvay, which had had a marketing deal with Bristol-Myers Squibb for a cannabis antagonist it called SLV319, also canceled its research. Phase II studies had found SLV319 an effective anti-obesity drug, but the company's head of research cited "high regulatory hurdles."

The risks might have been foreseen. Because the endocannabinoid system was not discovered until the early '90s, its role in regulating emotions and the effects of disrupting it are far from understood.

In 2003, neurochemist Dale Deutsch, former head of the International Cannabinoid Research Society, predicted that cannabinoid antagonists would be effective appetite suppressants, but that people taking them "might be really irritable."

Drug researchers are now trying to find a cannabinoid antagonist without the psychiatric side effects. Meanwhile, "online pharmacies" still advertise rimonabant with "discreet packaging" and "anonymous delivery."

Johnson & Johnson says it is not researching cannabinoid drugs, and a company spokesperson said it was "not aware of any" other companies doing so. On the other hand, drug companies are not likely to tell competitors about the research they're doing.

"This is all proprietary information," notes Paul Armentano of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "I have reason to believe there has been an explosion in cannabinoid-based drug research, but we in the general public are not going to be made aware of it until these drugs are close to market."

5 Types of Pot Drugs

Researchers are looking into five main areas for cannabinoid drugs. The first two comprise plant extracts and purified forms of THC. The other three involve drugs that affect the endocannabinoid system.

GW Pharmaceuticals' Sativex is the whole-plant extract closest to U.S. availability. It has been in development for several years. It was designed as a spray so it would get into the body and act almost as quickly as smoked cannabis does. This would avoid the main complaints patients have about orally administered THC: that it can take an hour or more to take effect, that it is difficult to calculate whether a dose will be ineffective or overwhelming, and that oral medications are useless if you're too nauseous to keep them down.

GW has also just begun research on whether CBD combined with another cannabinoid, THCV, might help treat Type 2 diabetes.
Longtime medical-marijuana advocates Dr. Robert Melamede, a biologist at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and California activist Steve Kubby co-founded Cannabis Science, Inc. The company says it plans to develop plant-based drugs and proprietary delivery systems for them, introducing them in the Canadian market first. It also offered "420 Commemorative Certificates" to anyone who bought stock before April 20. In early July, however, the company fired Kubby amid mutual accusations of financial malfeasance.

One major obstacle for U.S. researchers trying to develop plant-based cannabis drugs is the federal restrictions on the supply of the plant. The only legal source is the lab of Dr. Mahmoud ElSohly at the University of Mississippi. He has had an exclusive contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which must approve researchers' requests to obtain cannabis, for almost 40 years.

NIDA has had a strong prejudice in favor of studies aimed at evaluating marijuana's abuse potential. It has denied a supply to several well-known researchers planning studies on medical cannabis.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has refused to grant anyone else a license to grow cannabis for research. In January, it denied one to Lyle Craker, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who had applied in 2001 and wound up suing to get the agency to act on his request. The DEA overruled its own administrative judge, who in 2007 had urged ending the federal monopoly. The judge summarized the testimony of one medical witness for the DEA as "he considers medical marijuana an excuse for legalization."