Florida Department of Health Funds Big Pharma Study
Last week, the Florida Department of Health announced it plans to use its earmarked CBD research funds to test Epidiolex, a drug patented and produced by the publicly traded pharmaceutical company, GW Pharma. (Nasdaq: GWPH)
The fact that Florida’s Department of Health is funding a research study is nothing new: the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act, passed by the Florida senate in in 2014, included a clause to appropriate $1 million annually in nonrecurring general revenue to research cannabidiol and its effects on intractable childhood epilepsy.
Last week, however, the Florida Department of Health announced that it had awarded the earmarked funds to the University of Florida for a study that will not actually test the effect of the high CBD-oils that would be permitted under this bill (like Charlotte’s Web), but will actually test a liquid formulation of purified cannabinoid extract, better known as Epidiolex, a drug created and patented by a British pharmaceutical company.
The study, which will be led by Dr. Paul Carney, a neurologist and epileptologist, and his team at the University of Florida, will focus on children ages 2-16 whose seizures have not been controlled by other anti-epileptic drugs.
The state’s decision to test Epidiolex, rather than CBD-cannabis oil, reflects a greater issue impeding legitimate research within the cannabis industry: the inherent conflict between universities, where medical researchers work, and federal laws that still prevent these researchers from directly touching the cannabis plant. The University of Florida has said it would avoid direct cannabis research because it could jeopardize the school’s federal funding, making Epidolex essentially the University’s only viable option to study the impact of CBD. (The FDA does permit medicinal use of isolated and synthetic components of the cannabis plant.) A number of other universities have made similar cases, and thus, preeminent researchers with medical specialties, such as Carney, could only test whole cannabis oils if they were to leave their university posts.
The University of Florida’s application noted that they had no financial interest in GW Pharmaceuticals or the outcome of the study, but it’s quite odd that the Florida Department of Health is funding a study that could promote the use of a patented cannabinoid drug, over raw cannabis oil that would ultimately be more affordable and accessible for patients.
“We’re big proponents of research. We welcome any research whether it be from the Department of Health or patient-doctor research,” said Karen Egozi, the Chief Executive Director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida. But even Egozi was unaware that Epidolex would be used in the department-funded study, and commented that it would be very “weird” if they tested a company’s drug instead of the cannabinoid oils that should be permitted under the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act.
The producer of the drug—GW Pharma—trades on NASDAQ at a market cap of $2.2 billion. Out of responsibility to its investors, the company has implicitly stated its opposition to legalizing full use of the medical marijuana plant, explaining in an investor report that legalizing the medical marijuana plant in the US could negatively impact their business.
Ultimately, the parents of patients with childhood epilepsy just want relief for their children. “These are parents who have tried all sorts of medication for [their children’s] seizures—which can sometimes happen up to 100 times per day,” said Egozi. “They’re desperate for any alternative treatments.” But this research study could ultimately undermine the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act by promoting the use of Epidiolex over raw cannabis oil. Gathering data on the effects of CBD on childhood epilepsy is vital, but the Department of Health needs to revisit the inherent conflicts embedded in a research arrangement with a publicly traded pharmaceutical company that is ultimately concerned about its bottom line.
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