By Doug Fine
I missed out on an $8,000 one-day profit several weeks ago when I declined an opportunity to invest in British-based GW Pharmaceuticals, which subsequently went public as GWPH on NASDAQ. I could've got in at $1. The stock ended its first day of trading around $9, which is about where it's trading today. (Pause while I absorb a feeling in my gut that I hope is pride but might be fiscal pain.) The purpose of this column is not to speak for or against GW Pharmaceuticals or its cannabis-based products, but rather to elucidate the issues that caused me to err, for now, on the side of whole plant versus concentrated cannabis prescription.
In Too High to Fail, my recent exploration of the post-Drug War economy, I had only nice things to say about GW's most prominent product, Sativex spray. I quoted research out of the University of California, San Diego that said the product, which concentrates a proprietary balance of two components of the cannabis plant, was being studied for potential effectiveness in relieving uncontrolled persistent pain in patients with advanced cancer.
I actually am hopeful that, as it motors toward worldwide approval, Sativex will help provide relief for millions of people for ailments ranging from pain to diabetes (for which it's being studied). It's already helping multiple sclerosis patients' spasticity in the 20 countries in which it's approved, including Canada and much of Europe.
Though the company's very existence gives lie to the underlying purpose of the Drug War, here are the factors that caused me to hold off supporting the venture with my own funds. First off, a year of field study into organic outdoor cannabis farmers in California's Emerald Triangle provided quite the botany education. Not just in sustainable aphid-deterrents (neem tree extract) but in organic chemistry. I learned that cannabis contains more than 90 known components known as cannabinoids. The plant is such a broadly effective medicine because our bodies possess cannabinoid receptors. If I weren't already a spiritual fellow, that miracle would've made me one. It's a very kind set-up.
Cannabinoid receptors (think of them like catchers mitts, waiting for the introduction of cannabis and similar components into our bodies) are unusual in that they are systemic: They're not limited to just the brain or just the pancreas---they're everywhere in our bodies, even the skin. If you have inflammation in a muscle in your foot, cannabinoid receptors somehow know to spring up nearby. If you introduce the right cannabinoids into your system in the right way, pain is reduced.
One doctor I quoted in Too High to Fail, William Courtney, put it this way: "When their work is done [cannabinoid receptors] can even blow themselves out." Study, especially domestic study, into the human endocannabinoid system is, thanks to the Drug War, young. But what's clear is that cannabis is one heck of a complex molecule. In fact my original title for Too High to Fail was The Complex Molecule.
As Sativex, and other cannabis-based medicines become available, it is imperative that home gardens are still allowed.
Sativex, in controlled, indoor growing facilities, essentially isolates two of these cannabinoid components of the plant, for specific medicinal purposes. Make no mistake, two important ones: THC (the famous psychoactive component of the plant) and CBD, which study after study is showing effective for everything from pain reduction to tumor reversal.
Now, I come from a family of MDs. I understand that this is how modern medicine works. You take a promising chemical, often naturally derived, concentrate it, and start testing it. You start with animals, move to human trials, and then you get the equivalent of Food and Drug Administration approval in whatever countries you wish to market.
Here's the rub. If, God forbid, I or someone I love were sick with something cannabis can help, I'd want us to have access to the whole spectrum of components in a plant with which humans have, according to Michael Pollen, co-evolved over tens of thousands of years. More than that, as with everything we put in our bodies, I'd insist that such a plant be grown outdoors in local microbial soil under God's sun, rather than in a lab with unknown pest control methods. I simply believe such practices provide better medicine.
Now, I'm a fellow who could use eight grand. So at this point I could still have debated myself into investing in GW. It's wonderful that a cannabis-derived product is gaining legitimacy Stateside and, hopefully, soon helping patients when the domestic Drug Peace breaks out. But once you get into the patents involved in pharmaceutical products, you at least raise the specter of other ratio possibilities in the diverse cannabnoid, terpene and bioflavanoid profile proving unavailable to patients (or to folks involved in a health maintenance regimen that includes cannabis).
The limited effectiveness of synthetic cannabis derivative Marinol (used for glaucoma and appetite stimulation) has shown that the pharmaceutical model might not be the best option for all patients who benefit from cannabis therapy. As any practitioners of China's millennia-old traditional medicine will tell you, individual body chemistry factored over a particular medical complaint plays a fundamental role in the administration of herbal treatments.
Now, in preparing this column I very much wanted to hear from a GW executive assuring us that these concerns about proprietary limits on patient access to cannabis would never come about. That folks worldwide would, if they wanted, always be able to grow their own cannabis plants - the way that today a patient can make rose hip tea instead of buying Vitamin C tablets if she prefers.
I did contact the company for an interview for this column. A spokesman replied promptly, but said that due to forthcoming financial reporting, the company's in a "closed period" for public comments. As the debate continues, if another column (or columns) on the topic is called for, I'll certainly write it. Again, the purpose of today's Drug Peace Bumblebee column is to broaden a discussion that, I'm pleased to report, is yet another indication that we, the American people, have won the Drug War. We're getting into nuances like "whole plant" medicine versus patented cannabinoid combinations. Everyone should welcome this. I consider my mind open.
I should say, though, that there was another factor that somewhat sealed the deal for me in my decision not to invest in GW. They are playing with Big Pharma, every Drug Peace advocate's boogie man. To give one example (quoting from GW's website), "In 2003, GW and Bayer entered into a license agreement, whereby GW granted Bayer an exclusive license to market Sativex in the UK and Canada."
Fair enough. Even a Pharma giant like Bayer, for all of the problems in today's pop-a-pill medical marketplace, has developed products that have saved or improved thousands of lives. Also, there's a certain breed of consumer who is always going to feel more comfortable picking up even an herbal medicine in a spray bottle from her pharmacist. But it seemed to me contrary not just to my values (as an admittedly inexperienced investor) but also to the potential of one of humanity's longest utilized medicinal plants to, right out of the gate, invite Big Pharma to the party.
I fully accept that my views on this topic might evolve. Indeed I realize this very column might provide an investment spike for GW and I'm OK with that. If some people think any cannabis being legal is better than none - potentially restrictive government seals of approval be darned --- fine. It's fine with me, too, as long as home cultivation is always allowed everywhere. As long as locavore cannabis is always available at the farmer's market when the Drug War ends.
Meanwhile, let the debate continue. If you want to help ease the pain of my missed eight grand, you can always buy a lot of copies of Too High to Fail, or book me to speak at your university or organization. There you'll see the journey of an anti-Sativex: a local developed high-CBD strain grown outdoors in a sustainable manner and delivered locally to cancer patients. That's the kind of farmer-owned operation in which, when Prohibition ends, I'd be honored to invest.