It’s a plot line right out of a major Hollywood movie. It involves layers of intrigue, and insight into the shifty dealings within and between the federal government and big pharmaceutical companies. A new piece of the puzzle was revealed at the end of March, when a company you have likely never heard of received an initial federal approval through the Food and Drug Agency for its new drug called Syndros. Syndros is a synthetic cannabinoid, mimicking the likes of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and Cannabidiol (CBD), and is meant to provide relief for people suffering from weight loss related to anorexia as well as the weight loss and nausea associated with chemotherapy treatments. Although Syndros may initially sound like a great idea (after all there are similar drugs marketed in Europe made from synthetic cannabinoids), the plot thickens as you realize that the parent company was a major part of the opposition to legalized marijuana in Arizona last year. Insys Therapeutics, the pharmaceutical company now trying to line their pockets from a synthesized cannabinoid, actually blocked the legalization of natural medical marijuana in the state.
Considering they are the only pharmaceutical company known to fund the opposition campaign against marijuana, their backstory won’t be all that surprising. A quick internet search of Insys Therapeutics reveals article after article from established national newspapers detailing their shady, immoral, and illegal business practices. Much of their legal trouble comes direclty from its most profitable product, as they produce a painkiller containing the increasingly deadly opiate called Fentanyl. Because this opioid is 100 times more potent than morphine, it is quick to create addicts, and increasingly found illicitly on the streets. Many large cities are experiencing a deadly overdose crisis directly related to Fentanyl. It is being mixed with other street drugs due to its strength, addictiveness and ease of access.
However, the drug’s financial success has been the target of an investigation into Insys’s conduct and sales tactics. According to the lead investigator, he has never seen this level of misconduct in his 15 years on the job. The FBI has arrested numerous high level executives within the company for their role in promoting their “highly potent and addictive opioid that can lead to abuse and life threatening respiratory depression.” They are accused of fraud and paying kickbacks to push the drug on to unwitting physicians who should theoretically have no use for it in their family practices.
Shockingly Insys is also in the process of developing a drug to treat opioid overdoses. In theory, they could sell you the poison that might kill you and then the medicine to keep you alive. If the number of substantial ethical problems surrounding their opioid business isn’t enough to grab your attention, then their new venture into synthetic marijuana is the piece de resistance.
While on the one hand Insys helped shoot down the legalization of cannabis in Arizona (to the tune of a $500,000 donation), the company is now promoting its synthesized version which has almost entirely the same medicinal effects. According to Insys Therapeutics, cannabis, “fails to protect the safety of Arizona’s citizens, and particularly its children.” However, it claims that it fully supports the use of cannabinoids (such as its own), once clinical trials have been completed.
The dark intrigue of Insys’s unethical business dealings goes even deeper than strictly the stories making headlines this year. The bottom line is that medical marijuana and other cannabinoid products like cannabidiol (CBD), are increasingly cutting into the pharmaceutical industry’s bottom line, especially in specific fields of pain management, severe epilepsy, and cancer treatment. For many, cannabinoids offer relief when traditional pharmaceuticals have failed. They also offer an alternative when the side effects, or strength of the commercial drug are far too powerful for the patient to manage. Plus, THC, CBD and other cannabinoids are all completely natural and much easier for the body to process. In the United States, places with access to legal medical marijuana see much lower rates of opioid abuse and addiction. The idea that something in its simplest form can undercut the profit margin of a powerfully addictive opioid are probably a major reason why Insys is not only targeting the legalization efforts for cannabis, but also developing their own synthetic versions as a Plan B.
The story of Insys Therapies and their shady business practices may not come as a big surprise for many already relying on medical marijuana and cannabinoid products for relief. Big Pharma is a powerful lobby within the government, and often their financial goals outweigh any respect they have for the advancement of medicine and striving for an end to suffering. If there is one good turn to come out of this mind-bending exploration of synthetic CBD, is that finally the FDA has approved preliminary trials of a cannabinoid. The trails are meant to focus on anorexic patients, patients suffering from the side effects of chemotherapy, as well as relief from the effects of AIDS. This is extremely important because through approving the use of a synthetic cannabinoid, the FDA essentially acknowledges that there are medically beneficial uses for cannabinoids such as CBD and THC. Despite the carnage that Insys may leave behind, many people within the medical marijuana industry are hoping there is a silver lining to this dark cloud.
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