Is Big Pharma the future of CBD?
Nearly a year ago, in the online journal The Extract, a journalist by name of Michael Quinn, wrote a
carefully researched and thought-provoking article that may turn out to be worryingly prescient.
In a fairly detailed account, he set out how current trends indicate the growing involvement of big
pharmaceutical companies in the CBD market. He raises the spectre of near-monopolies developing
as demand for CBD increases and as research into medicinal uses of CBD rapidly approaches large
scale monetisation. Along the way, he suggests that a number of senior public figures stand to gain
from the current status quo (marijuana remaining illegal and CBD remaining categorised as a food
supplement) while big pharma edge their way quietly towards dominating the market not just for
medicinal CBD, but supplemental CBD as well.
As he says quite neatly:
“The story goes that the powers that be in the big pharmaceutical companies are either preventing
research into cannabis-based medicines to maximise profits on what they currently have on sale. Or
they are trying to prevent the sale of CBD in the ‘health and wellness’ market so that they can patent
and be the sole providers of CBD so that they again, can maximise profits.”
He worked through an example using ibuprofen. As is well known, this is an effective anti-
inflammatory drug and pain killer. But it does have limits and must be used carefully to avoid liver
damage. How wonderful it would be, he points out, if there was a comparable product which did not
have side effects of this sort or magnitude – enter big pharma and research into CDB…
And this raises a very real question already impacting on the market for, and the use of, CBD. In this
country CBD products may not be sold as medicines and may not be sold with promises or claims of
being medicinal. However, in the real world, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence as to the benefits
of CBD. For many people the reality is that their preferred CBD products are used in a medicinal way
– to aid sleep, for example, or to ease the discomfort of arthritisor reduce period pain*. But the
challenge here is that this evidence is anecdotal. Only proper scientific research can validate these
claims and who, nowadays, has the resources to undertake this work? Small, independently funded
research institutes might make some progress, but for this process to really gain traction, it’s going
to be big pharma to the rescue.
In some ways this may be a positive step. Only with large scale research can we get to the point
where we have incontrovertible proof as to the properties of CBD. Until then we rely on individual
experience and recommendations among friends. Not a disaster, but frustrating for consumers,
some of whom may struggle to make sense of the information available.
However, there’s a downside too. If big pharma muscle in on the act, we may get the research, but
the chances are that many small producers of high-quality CBD will be bought up or squeezed out of
the market. In time, most CBD products will then be sold from high street chemists or their online
shops, and the economics of the mass market will dictate the range of products available. Ironically,
if low dose CBD products were to be ‘medicinalised’, they may end being sold rather like vitamins
and minerals are today – like the food supplements that they currently supposed to be.
Alternatively, we could face a situation where CBD products are available only on prescription – and
guess who that’s going to benefit?
There is no doubt that we need the research. And there’s no doubt we need big pharma – whatever
may be the instances of unethical behaviour by some drugs companies, they can and do carry out a
lot of vitally important work. Faced with the urgent search for a vaccine for Covid 19, we rely not just
on university researchers but also on big pharma to complement that research and deliver the
scaled up production that’s necessary to deliver billons of doses of a life-saving drug.
These conflicting tensions may seem to create insolubly interwoven problems. We need big pharma
for the research and the genuinely excellent work they do for the good of humanity. But we don’t
need their pretensions to retail monopolies and we don’t need their vested interests threatening
independent producers of hemp. The solution lies in legislation that categorises drugs and controls
retail markets, so keep your ears and eyes open: for new of hemp producers being bought out, and
for drug related discussions in parliament. If you sense injustice, be prepared to lobby your MP – and
keep doing so! We’re unlikely to keep big pharma out of this market, but enough public pressure
might just bring about some kind of British compromise.
*The author is simply relating anecdotes. The author is a law-abiding citizen and is not claiming
medicinal properties for CBD. CBD should not be used alongside or instead of prescription medication
without professional medical advice.
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