Over the course of history in the United States, the pharmaceutical industry has grown into one of the most powerful political interest groups. In recent history, it has used its political power to protect its profits against the legalization of cannabis. Giving people the power to heal themselves without the need for doctor prescribed medicines is bad for business. We have one of the most medicated populations in the world, with 4.5 out of 10 people taking a prescription drug daily. Before the rise of the pharmaceutical industry and the prohibition of cannabis, cannabis was used medicinally in the United States, as we bring forward in A Brief History of Cannabis. Sometimes we wonder what America would be like if cannabis had never been made illegal. After all, cannabis has been legal for a larger part of America’s history than it has been illegal. What would medicine be like now if we had researched cannabis and used it to its fullest potential? Perhaps we would have a more in-depth understanding of cannabis, the endocannabinoid system and how to heal people with this dynamic plant.
How did the pharmaceutical industry gain so much control over the medical community? Well, like most things in America, if you want answers all you have to do is follow the money. The pharmaceutical industry really began to grow in the years right after WWII with the discovery of penicillin. “The discovery of penicillin accelerated the development of therapeutic, so-called “ethical” drugs available only by prescription” (Schewe). Following the invention of penicillin, the United States government invested a lot of taxpayer money into biomedical research. The invention of penicillin showed the world the potential for lifesaving drugs and the U.S. government started spending money on the research and development of these drugs. The National Institute of Health, founded in the late 1800s, created a way for the federal government to funnel taxpayer money into pharmaceutical testing and drug development. The NIH worked directly with public universities and helped to fund their drug research on behalf of the federal government. Numerous patents were being produced for a myriad of pharmaceutical medications but due to regulation, these patents were not owned by the institutions that were doing the research and drug development. Prior to 1968, drug developers were required to sign over the ownership of patents for drugs developed with NIH funding to the federal government. After 1968, this all changed.
In 1968, Norman Latker, general counsel for the NIH spearheaded the revitalization of a program that allowed non-profit institutions, mainly universities to claim monopolies on licenses of medications developed with NIH funding. “Called the Institutional Patent Agreement program, it effectively circumvented rules that had been in place since the 1940s, not only making monopolies possible but also greatly expanding their terms and limits, giving birth to a generation of brokers whom universities relied on to negotiate newly lucrative exclusive licensing and royalty deals with pharmaceutical companies” (Zaitchik). After the Institutional Patent Agreement went into place, these patents were being sold in the open market. This marked the moment where the American healthcare system changed from a patient care system to a healthcare for-profit system. “Since 1938, the government has funded over 1 trillion dollars of biomedical research with taxpayer money” (Zaitchik). Why is it that we, the taxpayers are funding this research for large pharmaceutical companies, when they get to keep all of the profits and sell the drugs back to us at an incredible margin?
Patents for medications are incredibly valuable. For most medications, the active ingredients are purchased in bulk for a fraction of the cost that they are then sold for. Owning a patent to a lifesaving medication is equivalent to owning your own money printing machine. The owner can dictate supply in the market and retail price. New drug patents, especially for lifesaving drugs are highly attractive to Wall Street investors. Many large hedge funds focus solely on investment in the biomedical market sectors. When new drugs come to market, shares for the companies responsible for the development are purchased quickly by the highest bidder. The drugs are then released into the market, generally at high prices. Many pharmaceutical companies that are bought by Wall Street see massive increases in the price of their medications for the end consumer. For instance, the lifesaving medication, the EpiPen, has increased in price from $94 dollars in 2007, to $700 currently in 2020. Since 1968, the medication market has been monopolized by large corporations and investment banks who have used the massive amount of capital their products generate to continue their growth.
Over the next few decades, the pharmaceutical industry began to grow exponentially. With a massive amount of capital backing them, they went to work using their money to influence policy that aided in even more growth and less regulation for their industry. Notable legislation that benefited the pharmaceutical industry includes the 1980 Supreme Court case called Diamond vs Chakrabarty in which the government ruled that scientist Ananda Charkabarty could patent genes and genetically engineered organisms. This decision created a gold rush in the biotech market by increasing the product offerings of the pharmaceutical giants. Through the 80s 90s and 2000s, administrations both democratic and republican pushed through legislation beneficial to the pharmaceutical industry. In present-day America, the pharmaceutical industry has benefited immensely from the 2017 Trump administration tax breaks. “Donald Trump’s 2017 tax bill allowed drug makers to repatriate more than $175 billion banked offshore at giveaway rates. Most of this money, including $10 billion by Pfizer alone, was spent on buybacks and cash dividends to public shareholders, which increasingly includes hedge funds. Meanwhile, R&D expenditure stayed flat or fell across the industry” (Zaitchik).
So how has the pharmaceutical industry interacted with cannabis? As cannabis legalization has gained momentum across the United States, we have seen an increase of anti-legalization lobbying backed by the pharmaceutical industry. In 2016 Insys Technologies contributed $500,000 to the anti-legalization efforts in Arizona citing a concern for public safety. A deeper look shows that Insys Technologies is the manufacturer of the drug Subsys, an opiate derived prescription painkiller whose market share stands to decrease with the legalization of cannabis. These lobbying efforts acknowledge the potential validity that cannabis may have for pain management. This is just one example of many times where the pharmaceutical industry has used their power to try and stop the spread of legal cannabis in the United States. “Numerous studies have shown that legal marijuana access is associated with reduced opioid overdose rates” (Angell). It makes sense that the pharmaceutical industry would do everything they can to protect their profit margins on one of their most profitable medicines.
Cannabis and the pharmaceutical industry sit juxtaposed to one another currently in America. We believe that this doesn’t need to be the case. Although the pharmaceutical industry has a tight hold on the healthcare industry, more and more people are turning to cannabis to heal where before they were using prescription drugs. Pharmaceutical drugs have their place in our society. Over the past 100 years, western medicine has accomplished some truly incredible things. We have figured out ways to treat and save people from many diseases and conditions that earlier in our history would have killed them. We owe a lot to pharmacology and the scientists and medical professionals who have dedicated their lives to helping others and creating medicines. However, where pharmacology has fallen short, cannabis can be there to pick up the slack. Cannabis can help people with life’s most common ailments without a laundry list of side effects. For thousands of years, humanity healed itself with plants and herbs, medicines provided by the earth. While we live in a time where we are the most removed from nature we have ever been, perhaps a return to nature is exactly what is needed to bring balance back to humanity. Perhaps this is why the pharmaceutical industry seems to be so bent on slowing down the legalization of this plant. Perhaps they too feel the cosmic shift away from synthetic chemicals and back to the garden. It will be interesting to see how the pharmaceutical industry continues to grapple with cannabis and its increasing accessibility. One thing is for sure though, cannabis will change the way we heal and cannabis will change the way we live.
Angell, Tom. “Senator Calls Out Big Pharma For Opposing Legal Marijuana.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 23 Feb. 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/tomangell/2018/02/23/senator-calls-out-big-pharma-for-opposing-legal-marijuana/#42a8965a1bac.
Schewe, Eric. “How Did Big Pharma Get Big? .” JSTOR Daily, JSTOR, 2017, daily.jstor.org/how-did-big-pharma-get-big/.
Zaitchik, Alexander. “How Big Pharma Was Captured by the One Percent.” The New Republic, 28 June 2018, newrepublic.com/article/149438/big-pharma-captured-one-percent.