Last week, GW Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: GWPH) announced they have entered into an agreement with Jazz Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: JAZZ) for Jazz to acquire GW Pharma. Both boards of directors for the two companies have approved the deal and they expect the acquisition to close in the second quarter of 2021.
GW Pharma is well-known in the cannabis industry as producing the first and only FDA-approved drug containing CBD, Epidiolex. Epidiolex is approved for the treatment of seizures in rare diseases like severe forms of epilepsy. GW is also currently in phase 3 trials seeking FDA approval for a similar drug, Nabiximols, that treats spasms from conditions like multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries.
Jazz Pharmaceuticals is a biopharmaceutical company based in Ireland that is known for its drug Xyrem, which is approved by the FDA to treat narcolepsy.
Bruce Cozadd, chairman and CEO of Jazz, says the acquisition will bring together two companies that have a track record of developing “differentiated therapies,” adding to their portfolio of sleep medicine and their growing oncology business. “We are excited to add GW’s industry-leading cannabinoid platform, innovative pipeline and products, which will strengthen and broaden our neuroscience portfolio, further diversify our revenue and drive sustainable, long-term value creation opportunities,” says Cozadd.
Justin Gover, CEO of GW Pharma, says the two companies share a vision for developing and commercializing innovative medicines, with a focus on neuroscience. “Over the last two decades, GW has built an unparalleled global leadership position in cannabinoid science, including the successful launch of Epidiolex, a breakthrough product within the field of epilepsy, and a diverse and robust neuroscience pipeline,” says Gover. “We believe that Jazz is an ideal growth partner that is committed to supporting our commercial efforts, as well as ongoing clinical and research programs.”
As of this writing, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved GW Pharma’s CBD drug Epidiolex for treating profound refractory pediatric epilepsy syndromes (Dravet syndrome and Lennox Gastaut syndrome) as well as for treating seizures associated with tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC) in patients one year of age or older. The product is a very simple, orally-administered formulation comprised of 100mg/ml cannabidiol (CBD), dehydrated alcohol, sesame seed oil, strawberry flavor and sucralose – basically, an alcohol-based solution with sesame seed oil to help solubilize the CBD oil, flavoring and sweetener.
On April 6th, 2020 GW Pharma performed a regulatory miracle when they succeeded in convincing the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to deschedule Epidiolex (i.e., remove it from the Schedule 1 and Schedule 5 lists of substances that the agency regulates due to concerns regarding safety, potential for abuse or both) for all indications – including indications for which it has not yet been approved by the FDA.1 The benefit to GW of having their product descheduled is incalculable. This status change removed potential barriers to insurance reimbursement and made the need to set up and administer an expensive REMS2 drug safety program less likely. In part because of this regulatory coup d’état, the drug recently posted yearly earnings of nearly $300 million.
It is important to note that the DEA descheduled the Epidiolex formulation and not cannabis-derived CBD itself. Thus, GW Pharma is now in the enviable position of being the only company that can legally sell cannabis-derived CBD. More importantly, because the DEA descheduled the formulation and not the active ingredient, other companies who wish to market cannabis-derived CBD pharmaceutical formulations will have to repeat whatever it is that GW did to get Epidiolex descheduled.3 The DEA effectively gave the company a huge head start with respect to competitors who are developing other cannabis-derived CBD formulations that would compete with Epidiolex. That advantage will remain in place unless and until cannabis-derived CBD itself is descheduled or cannabis is legalized at the federal level.
GW Pharma’s attorneys demonstrated considerable virtuosity in devising this approach. However, there is another aspect of the GW Pharma story – one that could have profound implications for the exploding CBD consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act4 (FFDCA) prohibits the introduction into interstate commerce of any food to which has been added an approved drug or a drug for which substantial clinical investigations have been instituted and made public.5 Because CBD was and is still the subject of clinical trials run by GW Pharma and others, even hemp-derived CBD is currently illegal to use as a food additive or dietary supplement under the FDCA
The FDA has recently re-started the public commentary stage of a long process that will hopefully result in the creation of a regulatory pathway for CBD to be used as a food additive – something that would seemingly be a straightforward matter given the copious amounts of safety data being generated from all of GW Pharma’s clinical trials. However, as long as the FDA continues to drag its feet in providing a regulatory pathway for CBD CPG products, CBD, regardless of its source, will remain illegal to use as a food additive or supplement under either the CSA or the FFDCA despite the existence of safety data obtained through the Epidiolex clinical trials. If, as many people in the industry anticipate, the agency decides to begin enforcement action, this could have a hugely negative impact on the industry.
In addition to the potentially disastrous effect that federal law could have on an important new industry, the federal regulatory scheme introduces unnecessary regulatory complexity and cost by imposing two different regulatory schemes depending on the source of the CBD. CBD derived from hemp is chemically identical to CBD derived from cannabis. Despite that identity, the 2018 Farm Bill nonsensically exempts only hemp-derived CBD from the Controlled Substances Act. If a regulatory pathway is created for hemp-derived CBD, but the DEA insists on maintaining cannabis-derived CBD as a schedule 1 substance, then the same molecule will be subject to two different regulatory schemes. This scenario would require tracking and certifying CBD sources and thereby impose regulatory and economic burdens that are entirely unnecessary from a public health point of view.
An alternative, economically disastrous scenario: given the pharmaceutical industry’s formidable lobbying power, it is entirely possible that the FDA could decide to limit the use of CBD exclusively in prescription drug formulations. This could kill the entire US hemp CBD CPG industry, currently estimated to reach $22 billion by 2022.6
Overall, the current state of affairs is unfair, expensive, uncertain and entirely unworkable over the long term. The CSA must be amended, ideally to deschedule both hemp and cannabis entirely, but at least in the short term, to deschedule CBD and preferably all non-THC cannabinoids regardless of their source. Further, the FDA must provide a regulatory pathway to allow the use of low doses of cannabinoids shown to be safe, either by existing clinical trial data or future testing pursuant to the NDIN submission process.
A 2019 Gallup poll found that 14% of Americans – 1 in 7 – use CBD products.7 The demand is there, the industry is thriving, and adequate safety data exists to justify a regulatory system that allows low-dose over the counter CBD products provided those products are produced using Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs) for food and dietary supplement manufacturing prescribed by the FDA and that such products undergo regular testing that demonstrates they are safe, unadulterated and accurately labeled. It is time for the industry to collectively fund a New Dietary Ingredient Notification (NDIN) submission that would provide safety data sufficiently compelling to force the FDA to either recognize CBD and other non-THC cannabinoids as being GRAS substances regardless of their source, or in the alternative create a regulatory path for CPG products containing low-doses of CBD and other non-THC cannabinoids.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of its author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Cannabis Industry Journal, its editorial staff or its employees.
Clincialtrials.gov lists 256 different clinical trials in which Epidiolex has been, is being or will be tested for a wide variety of other indications, including but not limited to opioid use disorder, several types of prostate cancer, alcohol use disorder, musculoskeletal pain, and a host of others.
REMS – risk evaluation and mitigation strategy – are drug safety programs that the FDA requires in cases where mediations pose serious safety concerns with respect to potential abuse and other adverse effects.
Exactly what they did isn’t clear, and won’t be for a long while given the snail’s pace at which FOIA requests are filled.
Title 21 United States Code Chapter 9
Title 21 United States Cod Chapter 9, Sections 331(ll), 342(a)(1) and Section 342(d)(f)(1)
“Exclusive: New Report Predicts CBD Market Will Hit $22 Billion by 2022” Rolling Stone Magazine, September 11, 2018, citing cannabis industry analysis from the Brightfield Group.
GW Pharmaceuticals scored a significant victory in the United States with its cannabis-based epilepsy drug Epidiolex in mid-April. The company received approval from a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel for its use in treating two forms of drug-resistant epilepsy.
The drug was granted “orphan drug” status in the EU a year ago.Will this be enough to move the conversation forward about cannabis as medicine in the United States?
So what does the future hold for this drug and a company, which has visited this space before? Remember Sativex?. The Company now faces real competition from a raft of companies moving into this space from just about everywhere – both from Canada and of course Europe itself.
The FDA Might be on the Verge of Approving its First Cannabis-Based Drug
It is not like this is either the FDA’s or GW Pharma’s first discussion about the medical efficacy of cannabinoids. Sativex, a mouth spray containing THC, was never granted approval in the United States for the treatment of MS – although it received such approvals in Europe.
If the FDA approves Epidiolex (made from CBD), it will be the first cannabinoid-based drug approved in the United States by the federal agency.
Will this be enough to move the conversation forward about cannabis as medicine in the United States? What will happen in the EU?
A Divergent and Highly Different Drug Market
Will the FDA finally approve at least one form of a CBD-based drug? The chances are that Epidiolex might finally move the agency to approve. However,this is not, despite the hype that the company has made in the press about this, the first cannabinoid-based drug to be approved in the United States. It might be, however, the first drug based on actual natural cannabinoids rather than synthetic ones that it approves for some purpose. Both Cesamet and Dronabinol (or Marinol) are synthetic cannabinoid drugs approved for several conditions from chronic pain caused by chemo to Parkinson’s.
But those who are hoping that this drug approval might open the floodgates at the FDA for startersshould take a pew. While Sativex was not approved in the United States, it was made available after 2011 for MS patients, particularly in Germany, which has the highest rate of MS of any European country. The problem? It was just too expensive for most people to afford – since their insurance would not cover it. And doctors were even more resistant to prescribing than they are now. So even getting a prescription was almost impossible.
That conversation was different in Europe post-2013, and there were people who managed to get a doctor to write a prescription not to mention afford the eye-watering prices sans insurance coverage.
That said, given the choice between whole plant meds, most people still prefer bud cannabis to the spray variety. And in Europe right now, that is what is on the table.
What Will This Mean in the US vs Europe?
In the US, the first thing that FDA approval will mean is drug sales for only one branded drug. That is the cynicism at play here. Furthermore, it also neatly dodges the THC issue.
In Europe? Particularly Germany? This development is not likely to make much of a dent. GW is competing with every single Canadian producer with flower-based oil – and on both the medical and non-medical CBD front. That also now includes local producers. Further, this is a market which prizes genericized drugs over name brands. In France, the distribution of Sativex was held up, primarily because of the row over cost. And who would pay.
It is also unlikely that the FDA approval in the United States will change the discussion either in the US on a federal level – or in Europe.
The most important place this news already made a dent? GW Pharma’s stock price – at least temporarily. It is also a spot of good news the company really needs. In February, the company’s GWP42006 drug designed for focal seizures (drug resistant epilepsy) failed to outperform placebo results and wiped 5% off the company’s stock.
While reformers at this point are loath to do any more than publicly hope, events in the UK continue to unfold in favour of reform.
This time, it is in the wake of a highly upsetting and embarrassing incident that further highlights the human toll of prohibition. When the British Home Office (a combination of the State Department, Homeland Security and a few other federal U.S. agencies) refuses cannabis oil to six year-old Britons with epilepsy named Alfie, don’t expect the famed stiff upper lip in response.
Not anymore.Why on earth would a home-grown company deny treatment to a British kid with epilepsy?
Especially not when the rest of the EU is moving forward, Canada and Australia (both countries are a part of the British Commonwealth) are now firmly in the medical camp with Canada moving ahead with recreational use this summer. Not to mention continuing reform on both fronts in many U.S. states. Even with setbacks that include the Trump White House and Justice Department (the recently dismissed federal case in New York being just the latest casualty), recreational reform in California is an international beacon of change that will not go quietly into the night. Not now.
One of the more interesting aspects of the Dingley case in the UK, in sharp contrast, is how fast Parliament responded to the plight of the six-year-old and his mother. Not only has Dingley’s medical import license been reconsidered in Parliament, but the matter appears to have finally galvanized significant numbers of the British elected class to do something about an appalling situation that affects hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Brits too.
Cannabis Medical Refugees
Medical refugee policy, especially around cannabinoids, is at least as controversial as the other kind. In Europe and the rest of the world, just like cannabis reform itself, these are national, not state issues as they have been in the U.S., (where the issue of cannabis patient state “refugees” has nonetheless been an issue for most of this decade).
Outside of the U.S., however, it is still the case that national governments can be embarrassed into reform with the right case (or groups of them).
That was certainly true in Israel in 2014, when the so-called “15 Families” threatened to emigrate from Israel to Colorado unless the government allowed them to treat their sick kids (federal government policy was changed within a month). Not to mention an internal, state to state migration of families in the United States to Colorado around the same time.
It may also be true in this latest British case. The Home Office has been embroiled in a few embarrassing take backs of late, mostly on the topic of immigration of people. The Alfie-Dingley cannabis case hits both medical cannabis reform and lingering buyer’s remorse over Brexit where the British people actually live (and on topics they actually care about).
Refusing at least medical cannabis rights in the UK might also well tip the scales in favour of a redo on Brexit. Or at least capture the support of people who still dream of that possibility. While the UK is still part of the continent, British citizens also have the right to travel freely, with medical rights intact, to other countries and get treatment. The British are no strangers to this idea (in fact, many British retirees end up in Spain and Greece for precisely this reason). Add cannabis to the mix, and current British policy looks even more out of step with reality and the wishes of the British people. Even the older, more conservative and “middle class” (read: American working if not blue-collar class) ones.
Local Production and Prohibition
And then of course, there is this irony. GW Pharmaceuticals, one of the oldest, cannabis companies in the world, is located in the UK. It even grows its own crops there, and has a special license from the British government to do so.
Worse, in this particular situation, it also is busy bringing several cannabinoid-based anti-epileptic drugs (for children and adults) to the market.
Why on earth would a home-grown company deny treatment to a British kid with epilepsy? And how could a government grant a license to a company to develop the plant for profit, but not a child who desperately needs the drug to live?
In a move that seems more than coincidence, GW Pharma also reported this week that their product Epidiolex (for the treatment of childhood epilepsy) is being considered by the European Medicines Agency, while a separate drug also bound for the epilepsy market called GWP42006 had just failed a Phase IIa trial for focal seizures.
The business press of course, has mostly reported that the only impact of this development so far of course, is that the company took a hit on share price.
It might do a bit more than that. Starting with legislative reform and ending with the sparking of significant home-grown (and legal) competition.
The combined impact of a failed trial in Eastern Europe by the only British company licensed and qualified to produce medicinal cannabinoids for any reason, and the plight of a British boy at home who needs precisely this kind of drug (and has so far been denied it), might in fact be the tinder match that lights political and market reform if not the development of a cannabis industry (finally) in Great Britain.
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