Big Pharma vs Marijuana

Written by: Aadit Agrahara

With Biden’s new executive action to deschedule marijuana and pardon simple possession offenders the road to marijuana legalization looks more promising than ever. However this wasn’t supposed to happen as many lobbying groups have spent millions of dollars in the hopes that marijuana would stay locked up in its class I schedule.

However this victory was only a battle in the decades of war between marijuana and its advocates versus one of the biggest lobbying groups in America: big pharma.

In the latter half of the twentieth century a new market for prescription drugs was created. Consumers wanted to treat their daily pains and ailments. However the only medication that was available was only used for serious injuries. This prompted the creation of opioids headed by Purdue Pharma, Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson, and Merek: the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the country at the time. Outside of the bustling factories and ivy league filled labs was a plant that stood to destroy the profits for these billion dollar conglomerates: marijauna.

Marijuana has been scientifically proven to naturally treat mild to moderate pain which would make it preferable to the synthetic creation from big pharma. Pharma’s lobbying efforts began with the gateway theory. In the 1970s many experts believed that using one substance would make it more likely that the user would transition to more potent substances. While we see this example with opioid users transitioning to heroin. This gateway theory was introduced to schools, teachers, and parents: creating the paranoia around marijuana that made it socially unacceptable for consumption.

In reality, the gateway theory doesn’t apply to marijuana. Marijuana has an addiction rate of 9% compared to alcohol and tobacco with nearly doubled addiction rates. In states that have adopted marijuana legalization policies a gateway trend hasn’t been observed.

This lobbying power has been seen recently. Steny Hoyer, a representative from Maryland, received one million from big pharma to continue the marijuana gateway theory narrative. In Arizona, a pharmaceutical company, Insys, spent 500,000 to block marijuana legalization efforts. However Insys manufactures synthetic opioids that contain fentanyl — an extremely potent drug responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in the U.S. Under the guise of protecting children or reducing crime, pharma companies will continue to push policies that actively restrict a natural solution for chronic pain to effectively monopolize the marketplace with their addictive alternative that is responsible for the destruction of generations of Americans.

If that wasn’t enough. Big pharma has infiltrated academia: spending millions of dollars to ensure that studies on marijuna only focus on the harms to create the perception of a dangerous substance. The biggest organization that does this research, the NIDA, has received millions from various big pharma companies.

However, science has been able to counter the millions of lobbying dollars. A vast majority of states have legalized the sale and consumption of marijuana — largely due to the growing marijuana lobby at the state level.Big pharma has now adapted to the change and culture and have done something that is typical of any for profit business: buy up the market space. Many big pharma companies have already invested millions of dollars in acquiring land, plants, and employees to manage the production and distribution of marijuana. In 2021 Pfizer spent $6.7 billion in acquiring a company that focuses on cannabis therapeutics.

While many marijuana advocates may see these acquisitions as another stepping stone towards nation wide legalization, increased access, and lower prices for marijuana. However there is a potential danger to the increased presence of big pharma in the marijuana industry. Following the same playbook with opioids, these companies would create more potent synthetics at a cheaper price point to get consumers hooked and use the war chest to lobby politicians to restrict natural forms of marijuana sold by small businesses. The expansion of the drug may only result in the potential for more big pharma manipulation.

The path forward will be determined by our consumer habits. By continuing to support local dispensaries instead of big pharma, marijuana will continue to be the safer alternative that it is. However, if we fall for the marketing and lobbying ploys of big pharma: we may experience the next drug epidemic.

Written by Aadit Agrahara an undergraduate student at Michigan State University James Madison College.

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