The evolving landscape of medicinal cannabis and its synergy with pharmaceutical giants

medicinal cannabis
Edyta Starwiaska

The journey of medicinal cannabis has seen remarkable adoption worldwide. Once marginalised and stigmatised, cannabis is now making its way into the mainstream of medicine and healthcare, offering an alternative treatment for various health conditions.

This evolving landscape is not only changing the way we perceive cannabis, but also paving the way for collaboration between the burgeoning cannabis industry and pharmaceutical giants. Big pharma is recognising medicinal marijuana’s potential, with the global medicinal cannabis market estimated to reach nearly $24 billion in just five years.

Yet, hurdles persist as the interplay between traditional and novel healthcare approaches continually evolves.

In this article, I delve into the legitimacy of cannabis-based medicine, its integration with big pharma, and global shifts in attitudes and regulations.

Big pharma's strategic investment

The potential of cannabis-derived compounds for treating a wide range of medical conditions aligns with the core mission of pharmaceutical companies – to develop safe and effective treatments for patients.

And as the medicinal cannabis industry continues to grow, pharmaceutical giants have begun to take notice.

Recent growth and acceptance have prompted global pharmaceutical giants to invest in cannabis-focused companies. For example, Jazz Pharmaceuticals acquired GW Pharmaceuticals for £5 billion in 2021, while Pfizer invested in Arena Pharmaceuticals, specialising in cannabinoid-type therapeutics.

These strategic investments by pharmaceutical giants highlight the growing recognition of cannabis as a legitimate source of therapeutic compounds. It also underscores the potential for the development of novel medications derived from cannabis, which can undergo rigorous clinical testing and regulatory scrutiny.

The potential lies in enhanced accessibility, expanded treatment options, and new revenue avenues.

Variations in views, policies, and access

One of the most significant developments in the medicinal cannabis landscape has been the changing legal status of cannabis in many parts of the world. However, this is often at odds with big pharma’s growing stake in cannabis.

Arguably, the US leads in medicinal cannabis, with California being the first state to legalise cannabis for medicinal purposes in 1996. Since then, 37 other states have followed suit in creating a patchwork of legal frameworks.

However, the ongoing legalisation of both recreational and medicinal cannabis poses unique challenges, influencing growth differently across regions.

By contrast, the UK has been comparatively slow to utilise cannabis for medicinal purposes, with it only becoming legal in 2018. However, in the five years since medicinal cannabis has been legalised, patients are still encountering issues with accessibility. According to a recent report, limited NHS availability has pushed patients to self-medicate with illegal cannabis or seek costly private options.

Meanwhile, other countries, such as Singapore, have taken a harsher stance against all cannabis usage. Recent law changes could see residents in possession of any drug, including marijuana, face up to 30 years in prison.

Differing regulations on medicinal cannabis create a fragmented and unpredictable market, impacting research and development efforts, supply chains, trials, patient access, and investments. Global consistency and harmonised regulations are vital for the industry’s sustainable growth.

Charting the path ahead

The future of medicinal cannabis is undoubtedly bright. The integration of cannabis into the pharmaceutical industry brings the promise of more standardised and regulated medications derived from cannabis. This shift will not only benefit patients by providing safe and effective treatments, but also contribute to the legitimacy of the cannabis industry.

But, while progress is evident, challenges persist in integrating medicinal cannabis with traditional pharma.

To ensure a prosperous future, clearer regulations are essential. These must cover cultivation, processing, and distribution, providing legal certainty and patient protection.

Large-scale clinical research is crucial to establishing efficacy and gaining trust from healthcare professionals and regulators. Real-world evidence complements clinical trials, offering insights into long-term outcomes and safety.

Ensuring product consistency is vital. Robust quality control, standardised cultivation, and advanced extraction techniques address cannabis variability, guaranteeing reliable treatments.

Lastly, a reliable supply chain is vital to meet patient demands. As the industry continues to evolve, a strong focus on supply chain management will remain central to its success in providing valuable medical solutions.

The medicinal cannabis landscape is evolving dynamically, offering significant growth potential and big pharma integration. Despite global disparities, the upward trajectory promises opportunities for both pharmaceutical companies and patients.

Steve Brownett-Gale
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Steve Brownett-Gale
15 November, 2023