By David Bienenstock

For the first time in world history, a cannabis-derived pharmaceutical has been officially accepted for medical use, and wouldn’t you know it—those freewheeling Canadians are the first ones in line. Sativex, an oral spray produced by British-based GW Pharmaceuticals, will soon become available to Canadian patients suffering from multiple sclerosis, particularly to combat episodes of “neuropathic pain” associated with that degenerative condition. The manufacturers of Sativex—which contains Tetranabinex® and Nabidiolex®, extracted from Cannabis sativa L. plants—are currently running clinical trials to prove their elixir’s effectiveness in alleviating a wide variety of additional ailments traditionally treated with medical marijuana, and have even founded the highly official-sounding Cannabinoid Research Institute to lead their research and development efforts. GW plans to have its product approved in Britain as soon as possible—though the wait in America could be as long as three to five years due to regulatory (if not political) hurdles.

The principal active components in Sativex (pronounced “sat-e-vex”) are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), which have been known and synthesized since 1964 (see “My Grandfather Discovered THC” on page 56), but until now the only pharmaceutical available has been Marinol—a completely synthetic version of THC created in the laboratory, which doesn’t contain CBD or other therapeutic components of cannabis and is ineffective for many patients helped by medical marijuana. Sativex, on the other hand, is derived from a “whole plant extract” and contains both active ingredients in a measured dose from a quantifiable plant grown under strict scientific supervision—the kind of setup that prohibition makes nearly impossible, at least on a large scale.

Sativex sounds great so far, and will undoubtedly prove beneficial for patients given access to it. But before we all run off and light up our victory joints, let’s ask a few necessary questions:

Why are the two cannabis extracts listed as active ingredients in Sativex (both naturally occurring compounds within the plant) suddenly registered trademarks, and what does that mean for anyone else interested in innovating in the field of cannabis medicine—particularly when GW boasts to potential investors about its “aggressive approach to securing intellectual property rights” in areas including “plant variety,” “methods of extraction,” “drug delivery device” and “methods of use”?

Will medical-marijuana patients be forced to pay GW the kind of huge markups that pharmaceutical companies traditionally demand to offset the cost of manufacturing, packaging, distribution, research and development, public relations, marketing, corporate profits, etc., only to end up with a “pharmaceutical” that grows like a weed for free, albeit in a “drug delivery device” that can be easily replicated in any kitchen? Here’s what GW founder Dr. Geoffrey Guy has to say on the subject: “My definition of a pharmaceutical is a worthwhile medicine that will make money.” Now ask yourself: How would Pfizer react if the company found out that you were growing fields of Viagra in your backyard?

Does the arrival of Sativex herald the end of marijuana prohibition as an absolute and the beginning of a reality-based debate, followed by a slippery slide into outright legalization, or does it signal quite the opposite: the beginning of a process that Dr. Lester Grinspoon has dubbed the “pharmaceuticalization of marijuana,” with the immensely powerful multinational pharmaceutical industry moving in to control the world’s cannabis, armed not with criminal sanctions but with corporate lawyers?

And finally: Why has GW hired Andrea Barthwell, formerly deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, where she was employed as a traveling con woman by US Drug Czar John Walters and argued against medical marijuana as “a tremendous hoax that is being perpetrated on the American people”? Now she’s signed on to lobby on medical marijuana’s behalf—as long as it’s in the form of Sativex. Here’s what she has to say on the subject: “Comparing crude marijuana to Sativex is like comparing a raging forest fire to the fire in your home’s furnace. While both provide heat, one is out of control.” Good thing she’s on our side, right?