The legalization of medical use of cannabis left in its wake a series of conspiracy theories implicating the pharmaceutical industry. These theories implied that the pharmaceutical industry wished to prevent the legalization of cannabis in order to maintain its monopoly on the sale of medication. Studies[1] indicating that the medical use of cannabis is associated with a decline in the number of prescriptions for medication are cited to give life to this theory. So, what is the truth of the matter?

It is true that the medical use of cannabis can act as a substitute for certain medications in certain therapeutic fields. For example, the medical use of cannabis is perceived as an alternative to the consumption of opioids to treat chronic pain. According to the previously cited studies, in the United States, a doctor in a state where medical use of cannabis is legal will prescribe on average 1,826 fewer painkillers annually than a doctor in a state where medical use of cannabis is not legal. Moreover, despite the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use, a significant part of the cannabis produced by accredited Canadian cannabis producers will continue to be designated for the medical sector.

The shared interests of the pharmaceutical companies and of producers of cannabis should lead to more and more partnerships between these two industries. Large pharmaceutical companies have developed products for decades and have the expertise and networks needed to complete clinical trials. This expertise is primarily what cannabis producers are lacking, as they are not able to hold the clinical trials necessary to pass the scientific test and thus obtain the necessary accreditations to commercialize their products as medications. The first companies to join forces were CannTrust Holdings and Apotex, who announced a collaboration to develop a new line of products for medical use. Last March, it was the cannabis producer Tilray and the generic medication manufacturer Sandoz who announced a strategic alliance.

The distribution of medical cannabis in pharmacies is also an issue that favors collaboration between the two industries. Currently, a united front is being organized to put pressure on the federal government so that medical cannabis can be sold and distributed in pharmacies. To prepare for such a possibility, Shoppers Drug Mart has already signed distribution agreements with four accredited producers including Aphria, Tilray, MedReleaf and just recently with Aurora. Pharmacy owners affirm that they are the most qualified to ensure the security of patients and that they should be authorized to distribute and sell therapeutic cannabis.

If the trend continues, these two industries will continue to join forces in the future. Some players have already taken the leap, but who will be the first pharmaceutical company to jump in? Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Purdue? For the last one on that list, whose area of expertise is pain management, investing in cannabis would be a marriage of convenience. Let’s wager that the conspiracy theory will soon be a thing of the past and that we will bear witness to a happy union between these two industries.

[1]  Bradford Ashley C. & W. David Bradford. “Medical Marijuana Laws May Be Associated With A Decline In The Number Of Prescriptions For Medicaid Enrollees.” Health Affairs April 19, 2017.
Bradford Ashley C. & Al. “Association Between US State Medical Cannabis Laws and Opioid Prescribing in the Medicare Part D Population.” JAMA Internal Medicine May 1, 2018.