There’s no denying it: these days, cannabis is big business. This means opportunities for investors and entrepreneurs, a growing market for consumers and a race for intellectual property rights. As we discover new ways to consume and apply cannabis, weed businesses, ranging from pharmaceutical companies to individual enthusiasts, are filing patents to protect their rights. And whether you’re an entrepreneur or merely a cannabis consumer, here’s why the growing number of cannabis patents filed every year concerns you.
What Is A Patent?
A patent is a legal document that protects other individuals or companies from copying your invention within your country. It also means that you can hold a monopoly on an invention for 20 years, the typical terms for a patent.
Today, people can patent pretty much everything. For instance, Harley Davidson has patented their signature exhaust sound. As a result, no other motorcycle can make the same noise as a Harley—at least until the patent expires. After a Supreme Court ruling in 1980, you can even patent living things if they’re genetically modified. It doesn’t matter how long a plant has been in existence. You can file a patent to control who has a right to grow it, and how.
When it comes to weed, you can patent anything from a weed strain to pharmaceutical uses to grow methods. It doesn’t matter that weed is still a Schedule I drug, meaning that it’s on par with cocaine and heroin. The US Patent and Trademark Office treats all inventions the same way—no matter how contentious or ordinary the product.
The Rush To Patent Weed
The cannabis industry has already filed droves of patents. Forbes calculated that there were 1,5000 cannabis patents filed in the United States alone in 2017. Interestingly, China holds more than half of the world’s cannabis patents. Yet both the US and Chinese federal governments prohibit cannabis use.
In the US, there are various types of weed patents. Some people have patented ways cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system, meaning how the human body responds to the components in cannabis. This can extend to treating specific conditions with cannabis. Other weed patents are related to growing techniques or a strain’s genetic makeup. Another classification of patents includes cannabis drugs. Additionally, you can patent specific terpene combinations, cannabis food and drinks or even a specific plant and all its descendants.
According to Legal Zoom, there are four kinds of patents. The first type that protects a specific plant is called a plant patent. There are also design patents, which can stop people from copying a shoe design or an iPhone button. A provisional patent is a short-term patent that gives you time to finalize your invention before submitting a more complete patent application. Most patents fall into the fourth category: utility patents. These include pretty much everything else.
The Government Even Has A Weed Patent
For the cannabis industry, Patent 6,630,507 has come to represent government hypocrisy when it comes to weed. It covers how to use non-psychoactive cannabinoids, meaning cannabis compounds that don’t get you high like CBD, to prevent brain degeneration. The research completed by the Department of Health found that cannabis’ antioxidant properties have neurological benefits. Though the government filed this patent in 2003, it still maintains that cannabis has no medical uses.
Though some see Patent 6,630,507 as the government’s way of controlling weed knowledge, others are more optimistic. Now that this research is patented, private companies can license it and develop pharmaceuticals using the Department of Health’s research. For example, Kannalife Sciences licensed it to create cannabis drugs to treat brain damage. Of course, by licensing out the patent, the government is also making money off of federally illegal weed.
As Mark Rohrbaugh, an adviser to the National Institute of Health explained to the Denver Post, “It’s like a piece of land. You wouldn’t build a million-dollar house on a piece of land you wouldn’t have some title to.”
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that cannabis is a Controlled Substance since the US Patent and Trademark Office functions independently. This even applies to the government.
Weed Patents Threaten The Cannabis Industry
Will large corporations transform our diverse cannabis industry into something resembling big agriculture? As cannabis goes mainstream, this is the question on most consumers’ and producers’ minds. And the biggest threat to cannabis’ diversity is patenting.
According to GQ, a company called BioTech Institute LLC has filed several highly restrictive cannabis patents. Unlike other, more limited patents on specific strain or terpene profiles, this company holds wide-reaching utility patents. Some speculate that this one company’s patents are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and could one day apply to every strain of weed.
If more corporations acquire similar patents, the cannabis crop could come to resemble apples. There used to be thousands of varieties of apples. Today, there are only a handful of varieties thanks to commercialization and the genetic engineering that followed.
One day, we could live in a world where growers have to continually buy mass-produced seeds from large corporations, where growing your own cannabis crop is illegal or requires paying hefty royalties.
How Patents Help and Inhibit The Cannabis Industry’s Growth
Despite the dangers patents seem to pose, they came about because, ultimately, they’re good for business. When companies or individuals have a guarantee that their invention will be protected by law, they’re more likely to put the time and resources into developing something new. It’s good that cannabis companies can protect their research so that the industry can progress.
But patents are restrictive by nature. For instance, GW Pharmaceuticals has a 20 year patent on Epidiolex, the only FDA approved cannabis drug. This means that the drug company can (and will) sell their cannabis epilepsy medication at an inflated price, making it inaccessible to people in need for decades to come.
And patents can be much more far-reaching than that. Utility patents threaten to reduce cannabis’ incredible strain diversity to a few varieties. Some speculate that cannabis will become more like craft beer: despite big brewing companies persistence, people seek out local beers, despite their higher price point.
There will always be a market for cannabis connoisseurs. But it will ultimately be a small one as people choose price and consistency over cannabis crop diversity.