How the company behind synthetic marijuana prevented the legalization of actual marijuana

Cannabis / Legalization
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The “synthetic marijuana” is now approved for prescription by the feds while real marijuana remains completely banned alongside drugs like heroin.

Rob Hoffman
Dec 19, 2017

There’s a reason why only nine percent of U.S. consumers believe pharmaceutical companies actually care about patients. You may remember when Martin Shkreli became the “most hated man in America” for drastically raising the price of a critical drug used for treating AIDS. But another Big Pharma company is fiercely contending for the title of the world’s most despicable corporate behaviour. That company is Insys Therapeutics, an American pharmaceutical company based out of Arizona.

Just months after Insys officials were charged for racketeering—in a case where they were caught faking cancer patients in order to push their drugs—the company released a synthetic marijuana product. Why is this second point so contentious? Last year, before releasing their synthetic marijuana product, the company spent $500,000 on a campaign to prevent the state of Arizona from legalizing actual marijuana.

The campaign to prevent the legalization of marijuana in Arizona was ultimately successful, thanks in part to Insys’ financial backing. In fact, according to The Washington Post, Insys was the only pharmaceutical company to bankroll anti-legalization campaigns in 2016. You wouldn’t know that from looking at the Insys website though.

“Our vision is to improve the quality of patient care by building a specialty pharmaceutical company focused on cannabinoids and novel drug delivery systems that address unmet patient needs,” reads the “about Insys” section, one of the first things you’ll see upon entering their website.

And while marijuana remains illegal under federal prohibition, Insys’ synthetic version was quickly approved by the Food and Drug administration and given a Schedule II controlled substance classification by the DEA last month. This puts it alongside familiar and legal pharmaceuticals like methadone, oxycodone, codeine and other drugs commonly prescribed for pain treatment. In contrast, cannabis remains a Schedule I drug—alongside heroin, LSD and ecstasy.

The DEA just approved synthetic cannabis as medicine while the real thing remains illegal 2 of 5 How the company behind synthetic marijuana prevented the legalization of actual marijuana
NEW YORK, NY – AUGUST 05: A man prepares to smoke K2 or “Spice”, a synthetic marijuana drug, along a street in East Harlem on August 5, 2015 in New York City. New York, along with other cities, is experiencing a deadly epidemic of synthetic marijuana usage including varieties known as K2 or “Spice” which can cause extreme reactions in some users. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The name of Insys’ synthetic marijuana drug is Syndros, and its intended purposes makes it directly competitive with marijuana. According to the Insys website, the drug is intended to address nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite—all of which are familiar medicinal properties of actual marijuana. According to Insys, the drug is intended to be used by people suffering from AIDS or the side effects of cancer treatments such as chemotherapy. 

Unlike marijuana, though, the use of Syndros “may potentially result in an overdose,” according to the DEA. As VICE points out, it’s also been listed as possessing a “high potential for abuse,” and users of Syndros are at “an increased risk of experiencing serious adverse events.”

While marijuana has been used safely for literally thousands of years, synthetic marijuana is a new phenomenon that has been linked to serious health issues. Considering the number of horrifying stories linked to synthetic marijuana, it’s baffling to think that rather than just legalizing marijuana on a federal level, the government would greenlight a synthetic product manufactured by a company embroiled in one of the most vile pharmaceutical scandals in recent memory.

So to recap: Insys has gone from faking cancer patients in order to sell one drug to creating a fake version of another drug to sell to cancer patients. After their racketeering contributed to the deadly opioid overdose crisis, and directly resulted in at least one death, the company continued to funnel money into organizations that intended to prevent the legalization of marijuana, which studies show can actually help combat the opioid crisis.

Are there any limits to the shamelessness and aggressive immorality of Insys? 

Rob Hoffman
Dec 19, 2017