Corporate Cannabis

In the 1938 propaganda film Reefer Madness, teens who
dare take a toke of the demon weed (also known as marijuana) are
reduced to cackling maniacs obsessed with evil jazz music, bent on
homicide, and destined for the loony bin. Today, the faux
documentary is celebrated as a kitschy cult classic. Yet the film’s
central message is in lockstep with the Bush administration’s war
on drugs.

While the federal government continues to use the courts to wage
an aggressive campaign against the medicinal use of marijuana in
California and other states where it’s legal (frequently relying on
alarmist rhetoric reminiscent of the aforementioned film),
forward-thinking industrialists in Europe have been developing
alternative ways to deliver pain relief to the sick and dying.

The ingredient in marijuana that makes people high is delta
9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Combined with the other naturally
occurring chemicals in marijuana, it can also be used to alleviate
a host of maladies, including the nausea associated with
chemotherapy, muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis, internal
eye pressure from glaucoma, and the appetite loss that often
accompanies AIDS.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has long maintained
that legalizing medicinal marijuana would lead to higher rates of
addiction and increased criminal activity, a position that Dr.
Jerome Kassirer, editor of the New England Journal of
, calls ‘misguided, heavy-handed, and inhumane.’ Other
advocates for medicinal marijuana simply believe that America’s
resistance to change is based on fear of getting high.

In an effort to appease American euphoriphobia — and turn a
healthy profit elsewhere — the British company GW Pharmaceuticals
has developed a cannabis-based spray. According to the
Toronto-based magazine The Walrus (Feb. 2005),
users are promised all the medicinal benefits of marijuana without
the cancerous smoke and tar. The company has also developed a
tamper-proof inhaler that prevents abuse of the substance. A doctor
simply keys in the allowable dose — enough to relieve chronic
pain, but not enough to get the user stoned — and any attempt to
sneak a little more results in a cutoff.

GW is currently seeking government approval for the product,
which seems likely since Parliament allowed the company to
experiment with massive amounts of cannabis in its initial
research. The German-based drug giant Bayer AG has already paid $60
million for the European rights and $14 million for the right to
market in Canada, where similar products are being developed.

In the short term, at least, GW’s prospects in the U.S.
marketplace appear to be dim. In part, reporter Brian Preston
writes in The Walrus, that’s because any type of
cannabis-based drug — whether it is smoked or inhaled as a mist —
is considered guilty until proven innocent. What’s more, Americans
already have access to a synthetic THC pill called Marinol, which
the DEA argues is both safe and effective. Critics counter that
Marinol takes too long to kick in, is hard for vomiting patients to
swallow, and, like many synthetic drugs, can cause severe side

Ironically, GW and Bayer AG will also face resistance from
activists on the other side of the issue, who worry that the fight
to legalize a medicinal spray will only legitimize America’s
anti-pot paranoia.

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