Several Major Universities To Offer Cannabis Courses and Even Grow Some on the Side!

In a previous blog post I wrote that several community colleges and lesser know universities were offering summer and/or continuing education classes about cannabis.  While these course offerings were impressive, most were community-based and specifically designed to support local cannabis growers and the emerging cannabis business in these locales.

More recently, however, several major universities including Ohio State University, the University of Washington, the University of Vermont and the University of California-Davis announced that they will offer courses designed to provide students and healthcare professionals with an understanding of the physiology, medical and legal implications of cannabis use.

And, quite surprisingly, Louisiana State University has entered into a private agreement with a Las Vegas-based biopharmaceutical pharmaceutical company GB Sciences to cultivate and supply cannabis for disease indications that the company plans to treat including chronic pain, arthritis, cardiovascular problems, asthma and inflammatory bowel disease. While LSU entered into this agreement, it is not clear whether or not it relationship with GB Sciences may affect its sources of federal funding because cannabis is still illegal at the federal level.

Nevertheless, it is becoming abundantly clear that academia sees an opportunity to get into the cannabis business one way or the other. Below is a sampling of the cannabis courses and seminars that are currently being offered.

The University of Vermont offers a medical marijuana and cannabis certification course for clinicians who want the latest information regarding medical cannabis and possible healthcare applications of the plant.

The Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University offers a seminar style course on the legalization of cannabis that will examine the social and historical backdrop of intoxicant prohibition, and assess the legal reforms and political debates now having an impact on the control and regulation of marijuana distribution and use.

The University of Washington offers a course for healthcare professionals on the use of medical cannabis to treat chronic pain.

The University of California-Davis will offer a course to biology majors that will cover the biology of cannabis and cannabinoids as well as their physiological effects in multiple systems, underlying mechanisms and therapeutic values. It also will survey the history of cannabis use, cover the endocannabinoid system and discuss potential medical targets for cannabis and their relative effectiveness.

Finally, there is a big push at University of California at Los Angeles to create a research center to study the medicinal effects of cannabis on a variety of disease indications.

References

  1. http://cannabisscienceblog.com/2017/06/15/69/ accessed September 25, 017
  2. https://www.businessreport.com/article/lsu-finalizes-medical-marijuana-agreement-gb-sciences/ accessed September 25, 2017
  3. http://learn.uvm.edu/com/program/cannabis-science-and-medicine/ accessed September 25, 2017
  4. http://moritzlaw.osu.edu/academics/course-explorer/category/criminal-law/ accessed September 25, 207
  5. http://adai.uw.edu/mcacp/ accessed September 25, 2017
  6. http://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/physiology/ accessed September 25, 2017
  7. http://dailybruin.com/2017/05/23/editorial-ucla-must-build-marijuana-research-center-study-effects-of-legalization/ accessed September 25, 2017

Commercializing Cannabis-Derived Pharmaceuticals: Legal and Regulatory Challenges

The current regulatory and legal landscape for cannabis and cannabis-derived products is extremely difficult and fraught with numerous challenges. For example, in the US, cannabis and products derived from it (including hemp) are federally classified as Schedule I drugs according to the US Controlled Substances Act (1). This means that cannabis and its products have been deemed to have “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the US” (heroin and LSD are also schedule I drugs), are harmful and consequently, are illegal (2).

Not surprisingly, its Schedule 1 classification has seriously hindered cannabis research in the US and made it extremely challenging for drug companies developing cannabis-derived pharmaceutical products (3). However, over the past decade or so, 29 states including the District of Columbia have enacted legislation that permits some form of cannabis consumption for medical purposes (4). Yet, despite this, cannabis and products derived from it remain illegal at the federal level and during interstate transport (even between states where medical marijuana has been legalized) is illegal and criminally punishable (2).

The confusion regarding cannabis use at the state and federal levels has given rise to two distinct types of companies that are attempting to commercialize cannabis (and products derived from it) for medicinal purposes. The first of these are commonly referred to as medical marijuana or medical cannabis companies. Typically, products from these companies are botanical extracts or actual plant materials derived from specific cannabis strains with anecdotally-reported medicinal properties that can be topically applied, ingested, smoked or vaporized. Patients require a “prescription” (card) from a state-licensed physician to obtain medical marijuana and it can only be used in states that permit consumption of cannabis for medical purposes. It is important to note, that while a prescription is required for medical cannabis use, these products do not require human clinical testing for safety, tolerability and efficacy (like other prescription drugs) prior to their sale in states where medical marijuana is legal.

In contrast with medical marijuana companies, biopharmaceutical companies including GW Pharma, Zynerba, Insys, Kannalife, Aphios and others (Table 1) are committed to developing cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals using conventional US Food and Drug Administration regulatory approval pathways. UK-based GW Pharma is the clear leader in cannabis-derived pharmaceutical space—its flagship product Sativex®, a plant extract, has been approved as a treatment for cancer-related pain and MS spasticity in 27 countries outside the US (5).

While the business case for developing pharmaceutical cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals is a sound one, the time and cost necessary for regulatory approval will be much greater than that for commercializing medical marijuana. At present, the United State Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has signaled a willingness to review new drug applications for cannabis-based pharmaceuticals (6). However, the agency has yet to issue definitive guidance for regulatory approval of these products and to date has not approved any application for cannabis-based products (6). Nevertheless, garnering FDA regulatory approval for cannabis–derived pharmaceuticals may offer several competitive advantages over numerous medical marijuana products that currently dominate the US market.

First, the average cost per patient of Sativex® to treat MS spasticity in countries where it has been approved has been estimated to be roughly $16,000 (6). Several studies indicate  (7, 8) that the high price of Sativex® will make it unlikely to be considered cost effective by regulators in countries with government-mandated national formularies like the UK, Ireland and Australia. However, this should not be an impediment in the US market because the federal government does not set drug prices and third-party payers dictate formulary placement and set drug reimbursement rates.

Second, unlike medical marijuana (which as previously state is a Schedule 1 drug), FDA approved cannabis-based pharmaceuticals like dronabinol and nabilone have been classified or reclassified as Schedule 2 (opioids) or Schedule 3 (codeine) drugs (5, 9). Federal regulators are likely to apply the same scheduling criteria to the next generation of FDA-approved cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals like Sativex® and others. Rescheduling will effectively allow these products to compete with medical marijuana because unlike medical marijuana—which is legal in only 29 states and cannot be transported across state borders—approved cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals can be legally prescribed, sold and used in all 50 states and US territories.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, physicians may be inclined to prescribe FDA-approved cannabis drugs as compared with medical marijuana because they have been evaluated in human clinical trials and officially deemed to be safe and effective treatments for specific therapeutic indications.. In marked contrast, medical marijuana can be prescribed and sold in states where it is legal without going through any formal drug review process. While this is unlikely to interfere with possible therapeutic benefits offered by medical cannabis questions concerning product safety, effectiveness and reproducibility about these products are likely to continue to  arise until industry best practices are implemented and standardized.

References

  1. https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/21cfr/21usc/812.htm  Accessed July 17, 2017
  2. https://www.dea.gov/druginfo/ds.shtml  Accessed July 17, 2017
  3. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Ending-the-US-governments-war-on-medical-marijuana-research.pdf  Accessed July 17, 2017
  4. http://medicalmarijuana.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000881 Accessed July 17, 2017
  5. https://www.gwpharm.com/products-pipeline/sativex  Accessed July 17, 2017
  6. https://www.fda.gov/newsevents/publichealthfocus/ucm421163.htm  Accessed July 17, 2017
  7. Pharmacoeconomic NCF. Cost-effectiveness of Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol/cannabidiol (Sativex®) as add-on treatment, for symptom improvement in patients with moderate to severe spasticity due to MS who have not responded adequately to other antispasticity medication and who demonstrate clinically significant improvement in spasticity related symptoms during an initial trial of therapy. 2014. http://www.ncpe.ie/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Summary-v1.pdf.
  8. Lu L, Pearce H, Roome C, Shearer J, Lang IA, Stein K. Cost effectiveness of oromucosal cannabis-based medicine (Sativex(R)) for spasticity in multiple sclerosis. PharmacoEconomics. Dec 1 2012;30(12):1157-1171.
  9. https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/fed_regs/rules/1998/fr1105.htm  Accessed July 17, 2017

What is Dabbing and Why Is It So Popular?

Dabbing is a relatively  new method of delivery that involved placing a small amount of Cannabis extracts or oils—a dab—onto a heated surface (usually titanium or quartz and known as a “nail”) and vaporizing it on contact. Like vaporization, cannabinoids pass directly from the lungs to the bloodstream and produce immediate effects.  It is important to note, that dabbing can accommodate only Cannabis extracts or oils not actual Cannabis flower or plant material.

Dabbing requires a delivery device  colloquially  known as a “dab or oil rig” (Fig. 1)

Fig 1.  A dab rig.  Source: You Tube Video

In a recent paper entitled “Tracking Dabbing Using Search Query Surveillance: A Case Study in the US” Zhang et al. (1) found, that based on the volume of Google searches from  2004-2015, dabbing is rapidly growing in popularity among US Cannabis users (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2.  National trends for dabbing-related Google searches in the US, 2004-2015. (from Zhang et al)

The researchers also found a coincidental increase in the number of searches associated with e-cigarettes or electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS; Fig. 2)

The average dabbing searches were significantly higher in states in which medical and recreational Cannabis were legalized as compared with states with only medical Cannabis legalization ( P=.02)  [Fig. 3].

Fig. 3.   Map of raw searches for dabbing in the US, 2004-2015. (from Zhang et al)

While it is not clear why dabbing has become increasingly popular, it is likely that this delivery methods offers Cannabis users with doses that are higher in delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and other cannabinoids.  Interestingly, the authors suggest that dabbing surpassed Cannabis edibles and smoking in the middle of 2013 as the preferred alternative form of Cannabis consumption.

Despite its growing popularity, dabbing is not without risk.  This will be the subject of another post!

REFERENCES

  1. Zhang Z, Zheng X, Zeng, DD, Leischow S. Tracking dabbing using search query surveillance: a case study in the United States.  J. Med Internet Res. 2016; 18:e252.