The Curious Case of GW Pharmaceuticals

Let me make it clear that I do not have any problems with the “pharmaceuticalization” of cannabis. If the pharmaceutical companies can manipulate the molecules and/or combine cannabinoids with other substances and thereby help sick and dying people, or just make healthy people feel better and make a profit doing it, everyone wins.

However, when a company uses marijuana prohibition and the Drug War to lobby for state violence against sick and dying people to try to monopolize medical access to a plant that has been used medically for millennia, I have to object.

After GW developed “Sativex,” its version of THC, it was met with “skepticism” in the U.S. drug war establishment, basically the entire U.S. government, because if it was approved for use in the U.S. that would suggest that “marijuana” might actually have medical use. Heresy!!

So, in 2005 GW hired former deputy drug czar and vociferous medical marijuana opponent Dr. Andrea Barthwell to help GW distinguish its products from medical cannabis.

Hiring a professional prohibitionist to represent GW in the U.S. was a perfect way to sell Sativex to the U.S. pharmaceutical bureaucracy. Instead of proving that the government was killing people by denying them access to a plant, it could proclaim that medical marijuana wasn’t really necessary.

GW’s CEO, Justin Gover, said that Barthwell “understood the tension between concerns about cannabis being used as an herbal material, even for medical purposes, and the potential for the plant to be exploited in a pharmaceutical way.”

And they definitely got what they paid for. Talking about medical marijuana, Barthwell, in a speech given in Belleville, Illinois on Feb. 8, 2005 said, “It is not a medicine. You don’t know what’s in it. If there were compelling scientific and medical data supporting marijuana’s medical benefits that would be one thing. But the data is not there.”

Barthwell told PBS’s NewsHour on Oct. 14, 2003:

“[T]he constituent part of marijuana, which is useful in the treating of HIV wasting, nausea associated with chemotherapy, and potentially pain, is available to physicians to prescribe in the form of Marinol…

What we’re saying is that 21st century medicine dictates that we pursue the avenues that would allow us to develop the medications that would be useful in these disorders rather than turning our medical care system back to the 19th century where plant products were in fact distributed by snake oil salesmen for the treating of a number of symptoms…

Physicians who are compassionate and practicing scientifically based, evidence based 21st century medicine would much prefer to use Marinol, which is available to them, than suggest that their patients smoke a plant. They would not want to engage in asking a patient to smoke opium to treat pain or to chew deadly Nightshade to stabilize their heart beat.”

Now think about this for a moment. Why would a cancer patient or someone with AIDS, or whatever, use marijuana, and run the very real risk of arrest if their doctors were telling them about Marinol? And if it actually worked?

And how did GW get the idea that this plant really had medical potential? Because it was being used by the very patients who Barthwell’s former employer wanted arrested.

And where did it get its cannabis genetics? “In 1998 GW Pharmaceuticals entered into a contract with HortaPharm B.V., a cannabis research and development corporation based in Amsterdam. The company was founded by two expert horticulturists from California, Robert Connell Clarke and David Paul Watson, and grew and developed specialized strains of cannabis with permission from the Dutch government.”

Ironically, Watson is reputed to be the developer of the “Skunk” strain of cannabis, which is the focus of much hysteria in the U.K.

In a 2004 interview with FastCompany.com “02-01-04:

“Dr. Dope’s Connection, David Watson, the CEO of the Dutch RD company Hortapharm, has assembled what is arguably the world’s most comprehensive cannabis-seed library.”

Watson talked about meeting Dr. Guy:

We grew plants that were 98% THC, or 98% CBD. And that’s what Geoffrey Guy [founder of GW Pharmaceuticals] was looking for. He wanted different cannabinoids — THC, CBD, CBC, CBG — which he could then blend in different ratios and explore them for their medical efficacy. We were the only ones in the world who had what Geoffrey badly needed.

FC: How did you meet Dr. Guy?

DW: We had sent a representative to a meeting of the Multiple Sclerosis Society in England, which Geoffrey attended. We were the only people there that were supporting the U.K. government’s position on medical marijuana, which was to take a step-by-step approach to studying the issue. Everybody else just wanted to legalize medical marijuana tomorrow. We felt it was better to test the materials first and put them through a normal drug-approval process. Our colleague impressed Geoffrey, and he contacted us.

When Geoffrey came over here in 1998, we were getting close to our financial limit. We’re an R&D company — we didn’t have a product that was making an income. The problem for Geoffrey is that all cannabis experts have backgrounds — they’ve built their expertise by working with an illegal material. But Hortapharm was fully licensed by the Dutch government. So Geoffrey got a legal supply of pharmaceutical grade germ-plasm. And he got me and Robert Clarke to pass along our knowledge. We gave him at least a five-year head start.”

So American “marijuana refugees” who fled Barthwell’s Drug War provided her future employer with a five year head start?

Meanwhile, on October 18, 2006, a few months after Dr. Barthwell went to work for GW, Charlotte Figi was born in Colorado. “At 3 months old, she had her first seizure. Due to her Dravet syndrome, at age five, she used a wheelchair, had up to 300 grand mal seizures a week, and had trouble speaking.”

In 2012, Figi’s mother searched for “CBD marijuana oil” for her daughter’s treatment. Figi began taking oil from the marijuana plant, “Hippie’s Disappointment,” which contained low THC and was later renamed Charlotte’s Web. With the use of Charlotte’s Web, Figi experienced an immediate reduction in her epileptic seizures, down from 300 a week to two or three per month.

In 2014, GW patented Epidiolex. That was two years after Charlotte Figi’s mother found the ironically named CBD. So, should the Figi’s have been arrested for giving their child a drug that would not be approved by the FDA for another four years?

As the prohibitionists like to say, “Think of the children!” How many children and their families suffered because Dr. Barthwell’s former employer opposed medical marijuana?

Meanwhile back in the U.K., is GW still supporting marijuana prohibition? GW has a market value over $2 billion, which is around 20 times revenue. On the other hand, they have huge greenhouses full of some of the world’s best genetics that they got from American marijuana refugees. I wonder what Dr. Barthwell would say about that.

Richard Cowan is a former NORML National Director and author of the nationally syndicated column, Marijuana Weekly News.

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