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The pharmaceutical industry's surprising new cash crop
IN THE 1938 propaganda film Reefer Madness, teens who dare take a toke of the demon weed (also known as marijuana) are reduced to cackling maniacs obsessed with evil jazz music, bent on homicide, and destined for the loony bin. Today, the faux documentary is celebrated as a kitschy cult classic. Yet the film's central message is in lockstep with the Bush administration's war on drugs.
While the federal government continues to use the courts to wage an aggressive campaign against the medicinal use of marijuana in California and other states where it's legal (frequently relying on alarmist rhetoric reminiscent of the aforementioned film), forward- thinking industrialists in Europe have been developing alternative ways to deliver pain relief to the sick and dying.
The ingredient in marijuana that makes people high is delta 9- tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Combined with the other naturally occurring chemicals in marijuana, it can also be used to alleviate a host of maladies, including the nausea associated with chemotherapy, muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis, internal eye pressure from glaucoma, and the appetite loss that often accompanies AIDS.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has long maintained that legalizing medicinal marijuana would lead to higher rates of addiction and increased criminal activity, a position that Dr. Jerome Kassirer, editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, calls "misguided, heavy-handed, and inhumane." Other advocates for medicinal marijuana simply believe that America's resistance to change is based on fear of getting high.
In an effort to appease American euphoriphobia-and turn a healthy profit elsewhere-the British company GW Pharmaceuticals has developed a cannabis-based spray. According to the Toronto-based magazine The Walrus (Feb. 2005), users are promised all the medicinal benefits of marijuana without the cancerous smoke and tar. The company has also developed a tamper-proof inhaler that prevents abuse of the substance. A doctor simply keys in the allowable dose- enough to relieve chronic pain, but not enough to get the user stoned-and any attempt to sneak a little more results in a cutoff.
GW is currently seeking government approval for the product, which seems likely since Parliament allowed the company to experiment with massive amounts of cannabis in its initial research. The German-based drug giant Bayer AG has already paid $60 million for the European rights and $14 million for the right to market in Canada, where similar products are being developed.
In the short term, at least, GW's prospects in the U.S. marketplace appear to be dim. In part, reporter Brian Preston writes in The Walrus, that's because any type of cannabis-based drug- whether it is smoked or inhaled as a mist-is considered guilty until proven innocent. What's more, Americans already have access to a synthetic THC pill called Marinol, which the DEA argues is both safe and effective. Critics counter that Marinol takes too long to kick in, is hard for vomiting patients to swallow, and, like many synthetic drugs, can cause severe side effects.
Ironically, GW and Bayer AG will also face resistance from activists on the other side of the issue, who worry that the fight to legalize a medicinal spray will only legitimize America's anti-pot paranoia.