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Marijuana legalization: Pharmaceutical firms eye potential market worth tens of billions

A March report from See Change Strategy LLC pegged the national medical marijuana market at $1.7 billion, with the market doubling in five years. Impressive, sure, but according to InvestorPlace.com, a prominent financial site, it's a relative drop in the bucket compared to the $10 billion to $100 billion market that could develop if the feds were to legalize marijuana outright.

In comparison, pharmaceutical powerhouse Pfizer earned $11 billion last year on the superstar drug Lipitor.

So who would profit from all those legal marijuana billions? Most likely, it would be those already profiting in the pharmaceutical industry. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration recently reported that it has granted pot-growing licenses to 55 companies; while those firms weren't named, InvestorPlace.com fingers such likely culprits as Watson Pharmaceuticals, which markets the THC drug Marinol, and Valeant Pharmceutical International, which has developed a different THC drug called Cesamet. Other candidates include Pfizer, Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, Bristol Myers-Squibb and the big pharma powerhouses looking to get into the THC game as early as possible.

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Then there's Sativex, a marijuana drug that's different from the others because it's not synthetic: It's a liquefied sativa extract that contains both healthful cannabinoids and the psychoactive component THC -- although apparently the THC is limited enough that it will take quite the dose to get a person as high as, say, smoking a joint. It's likely that Sativex's developer, GW Pharmaceuticals, is angling for legal U.S. pot farms, too.

So what part of the market does that leave for the mom and pops if pot does becomes legal? Not a big slice -- although considering the rapid growth of Colorado's medical marijuana market, some hometown ganjapreneurs might end up giving Big Pharma a run for at least some of the money.

More from our Marijuana archive: "Medical marijuana seminar will offer tips on on how to profit from Colorado's cash crop"

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