Last week, the FDA approved an epilepsy drug derived from cannabidiol (CBD). The drug, called Epidiolex, is manufactured by U.K.-based GW Pharmaceuticals and is used in the treatment of Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome, both of which are rare forms of epilepsy that are resistant to most traditional treatments. While the development of this drug is huge news for those suffering with these syndromes, its approval may have long-lasting implications on the way the federal government views cannabis writ large.
Medical marijuana has faced plenty of skepticism over the years, but with the advent of a legitimate medicinal use for a cannabis-derived chemical, believe this skepticism is all but finished. Currently, the entire cannabis plant is considered a Schedule I narcotic with no accepted medical uses by the DEA. GW Pharmaceuticals expects the classification of CBD to be changed within 90 days, but it turns out this doesn't mean much for cannabis' classification. There are already two legal drugs, Dronabinol and Nabilone, that utilize a synthesized version of THC in their treatment of nausea, but this hasn't changed the DEA's point of view. FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb was sure to mention that the FDA's approval of Epidiolex does not represent a change in the agency's attitude towards medical marijuana and that it's not "an approval of marijuana or all of its components."
Considering the hoops that American pharmaceutical companies have to jump through in order to do research on Schedule I narcotics, GW Pharmaceuticals doesn't have much competition with regard to CBD-related drugs, of which they are currently working on several. Because of this dearth of competition the drug could cost between $2,500 and $5,000 per month, pricing out the very people it intends to help. The rescheduling of CBD will certainly allow American companies to get into the game, but without rescheduling the entire cannabis plant, the United States risks falling behind in the race to unlock and commodify marijuana's other medical benefits.
Hemp fields will be everywhere soon
It's not all bad, however. In the wake of Epidiolex's approval, marijuana production has found an unlikely ally in Senator Mitch McConnell. McConnell just spearheaded the 2018 Farm Bill, legalizing the cultivation of industrial hemp. In his campaign for the bill, he paid lip service to the value of the American farmer and how American businesses want hemp for "everything from clothing to auto parts." Though it's hard to imagine how industrial hemp pertains to the automotive industry, it's worth noting that McConnell is not stupid, just greedy. He knows how valuable CBD oil is about to become, and is using his power in the senate to help renew hemp's status as a cash crop. He's deftly navigated this issue, being sure to disavow hemp's "illicit cousin" and use terms like "hemp derivative" when discussing hemp's medical potential. Through circular comments and ultimately meaningless speeches and press conferences, McConnell has managed to support the growth of the CBD industry without assuming any political liability for publicly supporting cannabis legalization. A pretty impressive feat.
It's obviously worth mentioning that hemp and marijuana are different plants. Though CBD can be harvested from both, it's impossible to get high from smoking hemp. Still, the support for a breed of cannabis' production from the far right isn't as surprising as it once was. The majority of Republicans believe that the entire cannabis plant should be fully legal. While Mitch McConnell isn't yet ready to take the political risk that goes along with supporting full legalization, he has accepted around $500,000 from Big Pharma over the past five years, enough money to embolden him to support marijuana legalization, if only obliquely.
In the end, the FDA's approval of Epidiolex isn't going to do much to advance the federal restrictions on cannabis. What it has done however, is provided a clear view for how change will take place in the future. McConnell's push for hemp cultivation after CBD's profit margins is further proof that money is the most important vehicle for American political change. Marijuana will be legalized when politicians realize there's more money in the budding weed industry than there is in policing it. Until then, it's unlikely that the federal government will act.
Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can also be found in Pop Dust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. Website: https://matthewdclibanoff.journoportfolio.com/ Twitter: @mattclibanoff