Medicinal cannabis – pharma’s budding opportunity?

Medicinal cannabis is currently a huge talking point within health circles and in the media, yet, it remains on the fringes of big pharma.

There are few subjects that stir up greater debate than medicinal cannabis. Is it safe? Should it be legal? Has its effectiveness been proven? What conditions is it useful for? Is it addictive?

But there are signs this is changing. As a sector, the global cannabis extract market is expected to be worth USD 23.7 billion by 2025.

Much of this growth can be attributed to legalisation becoming more relaxed, the rising popularity of CBD oil as a lifestyle trend and increasing awareness about cannabis’s therapeutic benefits as detailed in a growing body of scientific research.

So, what does all this mean for the pharmaceutical industry?

Mapping out the medicinal cannabis market

Cannabis is a plant with a long and troubled history, but slowly it is becoming separated from the “war on drugs” as its medicinal powers become better understood.

In order to map out the medicinal cannabis market and where the greatest commercial opportunities lie, it’s important to understand the different types of cannabis-based products.

Of course, there’s pure cannabis which will continue to be a widely used as a recreational drug. While there’s evidence its use is falling in the UK, it remains the most popular illegal drug.

Cannabidiol (or CBD) has experienced a huge popularity spike over recent years, with the number of people using it in the UK currently estimated to be around 300,000. As a non-psychoactive product, CBD can be inhaled, smoked or vaped, or eaten in many different forms.

However, despite CBD products becoming mainstream, many still carry unsubstantiated health claims. There seems to be a widening gap separating the surging CBD market and scientific evidence.

Then there’s medicinal cannabis, an emerging field of modern science using the extracts of ancient plants. As an extremely promising area of research for a variety of illnesses and ailments including chronic pain, epilepsy, dermatitis, multiple sclerosis, liver disease and cancer, healthcare systems worldwide are starting to explore and invest in cannabis-based medicine.

However, since its legalisation in the UK in November 2018, it’s been widely reported that patients have experienced difficulty accessing medicinal cannabis on the NHS.

The NHS itself states that “very few people in England are likely to get a prescription for medical cannabis” and that it is “only to be prescribed for in two cases – children and adults with rare, severe forms of epilepsy and adults with vomiting or nausea caused by chemotherapy”.

Cannabis-medicine isn’t currently available from GPs; only specialist hospital doctors can prescribe it, but only after conventional medicines have proven to be ineffective or unavailable.

The U.S. is one of the most progressive countries, however a disconnect exists between the availability and demand for cannabis-based medicine, and the knowledge and confidence of healthcare professionals in prescribing it.

For example, a recent study by the University of Colorado Cancer Centre found 73 percent of surveyed oncology providers believe that medical marijuana provides benefits for cancer patients, but only 46 percent felt comfortable recommending it. This is linked to a lack of educational programmes and uncertainty over dosing.

Pharma’s budding opportunity?

Being easy and inexpensive to produce, medicinal cannabis products offer the opportunity for both innovation and access, a balance the healthcare sector strives to achieve.

However, despite the potential in this space for pharmaceutical companies, so far, we have not seen large transactions or market entry similar to those made by alcohol or tobacco companies.

That being said, more drug companies are starting to invest in cannabis research, sponsor clinical trials and develop distribution networks.

As researchers and entrepreneurs continue to innovate in the space, they will find applications we haven’t even thought of yet. Any pharmaceutical companies standing back and watching from a distance, concerned by its legacy and the uncertain regulatory landscape, risk missing the boat.

Shortages of medicinal cannabis are of large concern to the pharmaceutical industry when commercialising the product at scale. As the sector grows, where can cannabis and hemp plants be grown in a cost-effective and compliant way to keep pace with rising demand?

Colombia has some of the most progressive laws in the world. Specifically, Law 1787 enacted in 2016, enables pharma companies to build the scientific, technological, legal, and commercial infrastructure for a financially successful and compliant medical cannabis industry.

What’s more, the UN – which is becoming progressively more accepting of cannabis – allots CBD production quotas and Colombia currently has the largest in the world (currently 44 percent). However, production will have to become more localised to keep up with demand from different territories. Only recently the British farming industry voiced its excitement about the opportunities for the rural economy from a growing domestic cannabis industry.

The complex and localised nature of regulation is another contributing factor to why pharma hasn’t entered the market en masse. Unlike traditional medicine, the regulatory framework for cannabis products varies greatly from country to country and in the U.S, from state to state. Therefore, multi-national pharma companies must weigh the potential impact of entering the medical cannabis market against other lower-risk opportunities.

Child safety

Currently, cannabis oils are being favoured by physicians over flower-based products because it makes it easier to provide more accurate dosage information. However, concentrated cannabis poses a high degree of danger to children.

Just like traditional medicine, if a child accidentally ingests large quantities of concentrated cannabis oil, the effects could be life-threatening or fatal in some cases.

While parents have a role to play by keeping medicine out of sight and reach, the industry has a responsibility to invest in packaging as the first line of defence.

Recent popular advancements in packaging design include ziplock bags, providing a lightweight and compact way of securing medicine and has seen a spike in demand with the recent rise of CBD products.

Ziplock packaging is a single-entry design which requires mature dexterity to slide a zipper open to access the contents. Many designs even include a flap which covers the zipper when the bag is closed, disguising the entry point as an added layer of security.

Packaging manufacturers also have a duty to label child-resistant packaging clearly for consumers. This includes using complete terms like ‘child-resistant packaging’ rather than abbreviations and including the information in a specified place – the ‘how supplied/storage and handling section’ of the label. Separate adhesive labels are seen as best practice compared with on-packaging designs.