It makes perfect sense. Legal marijuana threatens the profit interests of the pharmaceutical companies that make competing medications. But now there’s proof of the outsize role the industry is playing in the fight to stop pot reform.
Reports in September revealed Insys Therapeutics Inc. of Arizona gave $500,000 to Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, a group formed that month to fight Proposition 205. That initiative, which will appear on the statewide ballot Nov. 8, would legalize purchase, possession, and use of small amounts of cannabis; impose a sales tax; and regulate a new marijuana industry.
The donation was the first widely reported evidence that Big Pharma hopes to stop legalization, but the pattern is likely to continue. Medical marijuana represents a massive risk to these companies as they strive to hold their dominance over Western medicine.
Insys faces a real threat to profits
Insys makes a single product, Subsys, a nasal spray containing fentanyl. That opioid painkiller is significantly more potent than heroin, and drug dealers are increasingly cutting their supply with it, leading to a wave of overdose deaths across the country.
But this danger hasn’t led to any changes at Insys or other pharmaceutical makers. While cannabis remains illegal for most uses in most places, fentanyl and other opioids are still widely prescribed for pain, despite their high risk of addiction and fatality.
That means marijuana poses a major threat to companies such as Insys. Pot is known to be a highly effective pain reliever for many patients. What’s more, chances of addiction are low and the consequences minimal. Opioid addiction is a national crisis, while pot has never killed a human being.
Cannabis is a safer, more effective alternative
In other words, cannabis is safer for everyone and equally effective for many. Any drug that allows more people to stay off opioids is a good thing for patients. But it’s a bad thing for Insys.
“Insys Therapeutics made $62 million in net revenue on Subsys fentanyl sales in the first quarter of this year, representing 100 percent of the company’s earnings,” The Washington Post reported. “The CDC has implicated the drug in a ‘surge’ of overdose deaths in several states in recent years.”
Studies have found that marijuana helps many opioid users to withdraw from those drugs or at least reduce their consumption. A 2015 survey by the RAND Corp. found opioid-related deaths drop when patients have access to medicinal pot.
Criminal investigations are underway
There are clean players in the pharmaceutical industry, buy Insys is not one of them. The company faces criminal investigation in multiple states over allegations its executives bribed physicians to over-prescribe Subsys, a practice that has contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of patients.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, for one, sued Insys earlier this year, saying the company’s “desire for increased profits led it to disregard patients’ health and pushed addictive opioids for non-FDA approved purposes.”
Company executives claimed they made the anti-legalization donation because Prop. 205 “fails to protect the safety of Arizona’s citizens and particularly its children.” Few observers have given this explanation much credibility, given Insys’s clear financial interest in the outcome of Arizona’s vote.
The executives admitted as much in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, telling shareholders the contribution was meant to battle a drop in Subsys sales. Medical cannabis also stands in the way of dronabinol, a synthetic form of marijuana the company is developing. Insys acknowledged real pot is more effective than synthetic versions.
“Legalization of marijuana or non-synthetic cannabinoids in the United States could significantly limit the commercial success of any dronabinol product candidate,” the filing stated. “If marijuana or non-synthetic cannabinoids were legalized in the United States, the market for dronabinol product sales would likely be significantly reduced, and our ability to generate revenue and our business prospects would be materially adversely affected.”
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