Although cannabis has been a controlled substance since 1970, this didn’t stop the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from securing Patent No. 6,630,507 in October 2003. This patent, now infamous as advocates have thrown it back in the faces of legislators refusing to reschedule cannabis and pull it from the Schedule 1 substance list, covers the potential medical use of nonpsychoactive cannabinoids in protecting the brain from damage or degeneration caused by various diseases. Sam Mendez, the executive director of the University of Washington’s Cannabis Law & Policy Project, said it well: “Naturally, [this] shows that there is a certain amount of hypocrisy that there is ‘no accepted medical use’ for cannabis according to federal law. And yet here you have the very same government owning a patent for, ostensibly, a medical use for marijuana.” This, however, has no bearing on the Controlled Substances Act. What it does suggest is that if (or more likely when) cannabis is rescheduled and removed from the Schedule 1 controlled substance list, there could be marijuana-patent mania on the horizon.
So how did 6,630,507 come to be? The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has funded and conducted cannabis research over the years, both as an abused “drug” and as a potential therapy. Renate Myles, spokeswoman for the NIH, explained that when NIH researchers found that the nonpsychoactive cannabinoids in cannabis have antioxidant and neuroprotective properties, they realized that it could be beneficial in treating certain neurological diseases. “This patent describes the therapeutic potential for cannabinoid chemical compounds that are structurally similar to THC, but without its psychoactive properties, thereby treating specific conditions without the adverse side effects associated with smoked marijuana,” Myles said.
Just because a patent exists doesn’t prove that the cannabinoid compounds are effective in the proposed treatment (at least not according to big-government standards). The compounds in question would need to be purified and synthesized in a lab, and then tested on animals and humans. Finally, the patented idea for treatment would need the stamp of approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for it to be declared safe and effective.
Mark Rohrbaugh, NIH special advisor for technology transfer, tells us that patenting and licensing of NIH discoveries is meant to push forward technology that could potentially benefit the public. This can involve making deals with private-sector entities. Laws dating back to the 1980s help universities and governments open access to their discoveries for those who can further the research and potentially commercialize them. These entities are typically paid as part of the licensing contracts. All well and good, except in the case of something like cannabis, where developing cannabis medicine goes directly against government regulations.
The NIH Technology Transfer Office advertises patents (including those like 6,630,507) available for licensing on its website, and also does outreach. These licenses are often offered with some degree of exclusivity. In 2011, the NIH granted a company called Kannalife Sciences, Inc., an exclusive license to develop cannabinoid-based drugs to treat hepatic encephalopathy (brain damage resulting from conditions like cirrhosis). The company also obtained a nonexclusive license to treat chronic traumatic encephalopathy (a degenerative brain condition likely caused by repeated head trauma). According to Renate Myles: “Other companies may also apply for licenses to use this patented technology to develop drugs to treat other neurological diseases where antioxidant properties of cannabinoid drugs may be beneficial. The patent expires on April 21, 2019, after which anyone would be free to develop drugs based on these cannabinoids that, like all drugs, would require FDA approval to demonstrate safety and effectiveness in humans.”
Kannalife CEO Dean Petkanas never disclosed the specifics, but he did state that the licensing deal with the NIH did include milestone payments, a sales percentage, and royalties “in the six figures” to the government. There’s clearly big money on the government/pharmaceutical side of the cannabis story, even as it remains a Schedule 1 substance. Gregory Wesner, a Seattle-based patent and trademark attorney at Lane Powell PC, says it best: “The interesting thing here is basically the government being two-faced.”
Ask yourself this question: How can the same government that declares cannabis a Schedule 1 substance (meaning, among other things, that it has no medicinal value) also document, patent, and license out its medical potential and make money off of it? There’s a reason for so much conflict around cannabis legislation, and it’s not just about the potheads.