Marijuana: DEA proposal, new Colorado law could lead to Big Pharma boom, attorney says

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Last month, we told you about a loophole in HB 1043, the medical marijuana cleanup bill, that could let Big Pharma firms get involved in the Colorado MMJ industry. Now, the Drug Enforcement Administration has made a new proposal involving marijuana extracts, and attorney Warren Edson sees it as further fueling a possible boom in the manufacture of such products here.

HB 1043 states that "a medical marijuana center may provide a sample of its products to a laboratory that has an occupational license from the state licensing authority for testing and research purposes. The laboratory may develop, test, and produce medical marijuana-based products." Because these labs only need an occupational license, not a license specific to the medical marijuana industry, Edson believes the restrictions placed on dispensaries -- including the rule disallowing out-of-state ownership -- wouldn't apply.

The latest development? The DEA has proposed establishing a new code number for what it refers to as "Marihuana Extract." This code would be different from the one pertaining to marijuana itself, allowing the agency to track extract separately.

On the surface, this change seems merely technical. But Edson believes it has greater significance. According to him, "it sure looks like this would create a little niche, a little nook that would allow a pharmaceutical company to make products with marijuana extract in addition to what they usually do, without jeopardizing their big money drugs. And because of that little addition to 1043, the only place in the country where they could do that is right here."

At first blush, opening such a window to the medical industry seems hypocritical. After all, as Edson notes, "you've got the federal government simultaneously issuing this new proposal and, out of the other side of its mouth, saying marijuana has no medicinal value" by registering it as a Schedule 1 narcotic. But such contradictions aren't unknown in the medical biz. "The coca plant supposedly has no medical value, either," he points out, "but its extract gives us pharmaceutical cocaine, which helps people with narcolepsy. So the extract does have medical value."

He can envision a similar development with marijuana -- one in which the feds would continue to deem the plant to be valueless from a medical standpoint, but not its extract.

The timing of this proposal so soon after HB 1043 was signed into law by Governor John Hickenlooper strikes Edson as more than coincidental.

"If you want to be a conspiracy-theory person, well, somebody had to lobby to have that clause put into 1043," he allows. "And whoever did that had to know this was coming or was in the works. We heard all this discussion about how the clause would allow Big Pharma to come and play, but they had very little economic incentive, because DEA rules might cause them to lose the right to make their other drugs. But now they wouldn't have to."

Granted, there's no guarantee major U.S. drug companies will rush to launch marijuana-extract-based products like Sativex, manufactured by a British firm, if the proposal is adopted. As Edson acknowledges, "we'll know in six to nine months. By then, either they'll be here or they won't." But if the extract code change goes through, he believes, there'll be nothing stopping them.

More from our Marijuana archive: "Medical marijuana: State fees for MMJ business licensing too high, says attorney Warren Edson."

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