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Pharmaceutical companies are becoming more and more interested in exploring ways to profit from the medical properties of pot, but federal law makes this a challenging task. The Drug Enforcement Administration still classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug with no recognized medical benefit, even though 29 states have legalized medical cannabis and numerous research studies confirm various therapeutic uses for the plant.
As a result of the federal prohibition on cannabis, it is extremely difficult for any U.S. research facility to acquire cannabis with which to conduct experiments. Up until recently, the only cannabis available to American researchers came from a National Institute of Drug Abuse-approved farm run by the University of Mississippi. Marijuana sourced from this facility, however, is of extremely poor quality, and completely unlike any weed that a consumer would purchase via a legal cannabis dispensary or even on the black market.
As reported by Business Insider, these limitations have forced pharmaceutical companies to find creative ways to get around federal restrictions in order to obtain premium-grade cannabis for research. Some of these companies are turning to other countries, such as Canada and Israel, which have more lenient medical cannabis laws. Multinational pharmaceutical firm Johnson & Johnson recently accepted two medical canna-businesses, Avicanna and Vapium Medical, into its Canadian JLabs Innovation network.
The partnership gives cannabis companies access to lab space and a chance to pick the brains of top scientists and researchers. "Partnering with JLabs allowed us to obtain a lot of credibility," Avicanna CEO Aras Azadian said to Business Insider. Azadian’s Toronto-based business has been growing and harvesting their cannabis in Colombia for products intended for import to California among other U.S. states with legal cannabis. In 2015, Colombia passed a medical marijuana law that allows local cannabis cultivators to export their products to other countries. By teaming up with Johnson & Johnson, Avicanna is also hopeful that the pharma giant could eventually become one of their investors: "Since we're part of their ecosystem it's much more convenient to cooperate and collaborate — a lot more so than to start working with new company," Azadian said to Business Insider. "I think we've positioned ourselves well to be a good fit for them."
Some American companies are also looking into importing small quantities of medical cannabis for testing, since they are unable to legally source American-grown cannabis. One of these companies, Virginia-based Sanyal Biotechnology, has applied for a federal permit to import CBD into the country for testing, while Delaware drug firm Noramco has applied to import both cannabis extracts as well as whole plant material.
The difficulties in researching cannabis in the U.S. are so extreme that only one cannabis-based drug has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to date. In 1985, the FDA approved dronabinol, a synthetic form of THC, to treat nausea and vomiting brought on by chemotherapy. The drug, sold as Marinol, was later approved for a second use, as an appetite stimulant for patients suffering from AIDS-related anorexia.
Four decades after approving dronabinol, the FDA is close to approving its second cannabis-based medication. British drug firm GW Pharmaceuticals has recently secured a “priority review” from the FDA for Epidiolex, its CBD-based epilepsy medication. Unlike dronabinol, Epidiolex is made from actual cannabis plant material, but the drug does not contain THC and is not psychoactive in any way. The medication is currently in its final phase of FDA trials, and may gain final approval as early as this summer.