Opiate abuse is a far-reaching international public health issue, impacting tens of thousands of people every year in the United States alone. As the epidemic continues to spread, the medical community is faced with the immense task of researching and developing safer, non-addictive treatment alternatives for patients of chronic pain and other ailments. The controversial and oft-debated notion of cannabis as an opiate alternative has become increasingly well-researched and gained considerable credibility in recent years. The new challenge lies in advancing the cannabis industry to the point of being a legitimate medicine that can be prescribed and administered by doctors.
Opioids are among the most commonly prescribed medical treatments for severe chronic pain, yet prescription opioid overdoses killed more than 165,000 Americans between 1999 and 2014 according to the Department of Health and Human Services. In fact, the health and social costs of opioids are estimated to be as much as $55 billion a year. As such, it has become more imperative than ever that mainstream medical practitioners take notice of the cannabis plant’s powerful healing properties and shift away from potentially harmful pharmaceutical medications.
The evidence of cannabis’ safety and efficacy is well established. For instance, in a literature review of 38 studies evaluating medical cannabis’ efficacy for treating pain, 71 percent concluded that cannabinoids had empirically demonstrable and statistically significant pain-relieving effects. In addition, a 2015 meta-analysis of 79 studies found a 30 percent or greater reduction of pain with the use of cannabinoids compared to placebos. Further, an analysis of a decade of randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trials on cannabis for treating pain concluded that cannabis should be a first line treatment for patients with painful neuropathy and other serious and debilitating symptoms, who often do not respond to other available medications.
Not only is cannabis demonstrably safe and effective, but numerous studies also present compelling evidence that the prescription of opiates has dropped sharply in U.S. states and countries that have legalized medical cannabis. For example, a study in the Clinical Journal of Pain followed 176 chronic pain patients in Israel over seven months. Researchers found that 44 percent of participants stopped taking prescription opioids within seven months after starting medical cannabis. Patients cited the following reasons for using cannabis instead of pharmaceutical drugs: 65 percent reported less adverse side effects, 57 percent cited better symptom management and 34 percent found that cannabis had less withdrawal potential than their other medications.The evidence of cannabis’ safety and efficacy is well established.
The tide is quickly turning as many respected doctors are beginning to advocate for the tremendous medical potential of cannabis as a replacement for prescription pills. That said, if the cannabis industry is to help solve the crisis inflicted by modern pharmaceutical painkillers, we must develop next-generation scientifically formulated products and advocate to improve their accessibility.
Inhalation and oral methods of cannabis consumption have no reliable dosage as medicine, rendering them unfit for administration by health professionals. These mainstream consumption methods also have extremely low bioavailability and bioactivity. Bioavailability for ingested cannabis products is only 6 percent and for inhalation methods can be as low as 2 percent. Oral absorption of THC is slow and unpredictable, with peak blood concentration occurring 1–5 hours post dose. Similarly, inhalation methods can take up to two hours to have any effect. The next phase of the medical cannabis industry must focus on fixing problems that prevent cannabis from being a universally recognized health tool. Fortunately, scientists are making major advancements in cannabis delivery technologies, offering novel and innovative administration methods that have proven both effective and reliable.
With products like Evolve’s NanoSerum™ representing a promising solution to help reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with prescription opioid use and abuse, meaningful progress is already underway. It’s been a long and challenging road to arrive at this point, but our efforts are only just beginning. Achieving long-term change on a national and international scale will require professionals from all levels of the cannabis, science and medical communities to push for advanced product offerings that provide consistent, standardized dosing in healthier, smokeless modes of delivery.
Demand for cannabis extracts, in particular vaping products, is at an all-time high. People want good oil, and they want to know something about the quality of it. It is therefore time to take a step back and consider the process from plant to cartridge. What is the current industry standard for cannabis extraction, what constitutes quality and where might we need to make some adjustments?
Right now, “clear” oil is hot. Customers have been led to believe that a pale gold extract is synonymous with the best possible cannabis concentrate, which is not necessarily the case. Producing a 95% pure THC extract with a translucent appearance is neither a great scientific feat nor a good representation of the whole cannabis flower. Moreover, it runs counter to the current trend of all-natural, non-processed foods and wellness products.
“My carrots are organic and fresh from the farmers market, my drink has no artificial sweeteners and my honey is raw, but my cannabis oil has undergone a dozen steps to look clear and still contains butane.”Cannabis is a fascinating plant. It is the basis of our livelihood, but more importantly, it enhances the quality of life for patients. The cannabis plant offers a plethora of medicinally interesting compounds. THC, CBD and terpenes are the most popular, but there are so many more. As of the most recent count, there are 146 known cannabinoids1. Cannabinoids are a group of structurally similar molecules2, including THC and CBD, many of which have shown biological activity3.
Then there are terpenes. These are the smaller molecules that give cannabis its distinct smell and flavor, over 200 of which have been identified in cannabis4. But wait, there’s more. The cannabis plant also produces countless other metabolites: flavonoids, alkaloids, phenols and amides5. All these components mixed together give the often-cited entourage effect6,7.
Current industry standards for cannabis oil extraction and purification stand in marked contrast to the complexity of the plant’s components. Due to an unsophisticated understanding of the extraction process and its underlying chemistry, cannabis oil manufacturers frequently produce oil of low quality with high levels of contamination. This necessitates further purifications and clean up steps that remove such contaminants unfortunately along with beneficial minor plant compounds. If one purifies an extract to a clear THC oil, one cannot also offer the full spectrum of cannabinoids, terpenes and other components. Additionally, claiming purities around 95% THC and being proud of it, makes any self-respecting organic chemist cringe8.
The labor-intensive, multi-step extraction process is also contrary to “the clean-label food trend”, which “has gone fully mainstream”9. Exposing the cannabis flower and oil to at least half a dozen processing steps violates consumer’s desire for clean medicine. Furthermore, the current practice of calling supercritical-CO2-extracted oils solvent-less violates basic scientific principles. Firstly, CO2 is used as a solvent, and secondly, if ethanol is used to winterize10, this would introduce another solvent to the cannabis oil.
We should reconsider our current extraction practices. We can offer cannabis extracts that are free of harmful solvents and pesticides, give a better, if not full, representation of the cannabis plant and meet the patients’ desire for clean medicine. Realizing extracts as the growth-driver they are11 will make us use better, fresher starting materials12. Understanding the underlying science and learning about the extraction processes will allow us to fine-tune the process to the point that we target extract customized cannabis concentrates13. Those, in turn, will not require additional multi-step purification processes, that destroys the basis of the entourage effect.
The cannabis industry needs to invest and educate. Better extracts are the result of knowledgeable, skilled people using precise instruments. Backroom extraction with a PVC pipe and a lighter should be horror stories of the past. And only when the patient knows how their medicine is made can they make educated choices. Through knowledge, patients will understand why quality has its price.
In short, over-processing to make clear oil violates both the plant’s complexity and consumers’ desires. Let us strive for pure extracts, not clear. Our patients deserve it.
 Prof. Meiri; lecture at MedCann 2017
 ElSohly, Slade, Life Sciences2005, 539
 Whiting, et. al.,JAMA.2015, 2456
 Andre, Hausman, Guerriero, Frontiers in Plant Science2016, 19
There is a great deal to be happy about with medical cannabis legalization in Germany. This is the first country that has mandated insurance coverage of the drug – at least at the federal legislative level.
However, as the government evaluates the finalists in the first tender bid for domestically grown and regulated cannabis, a real crisis is brewing for patients on the ground. And further one that the industry not only sees but is trying to respond to.
Spektrum Cannabis GmbH, formerly MedCann GmbH began trying to address this problem when they obtained the first import license for Canadian cannabis last year. They are also one of the apparent five finalists in the pending government bid to grow the plant domestically for medical purposes. According to Dr. Sebastian Schulz, head of communications for Spektrum, “Shortly after the new cannabis law was reformed we experienced a huge increase in demand from the side of patients. We had prepared for that. The German population is very curious about cannabis as a medicine and in general very open to natural remedies.”
People are curious here. But like other places, the law in Germany has evolved slowly. Much like Israel, the government has allowed a trickle of patients to have access to cannabis by jumping through multiple, time consuming hoops. The process of getting cannabis prescribed, much less getting a pharmacy to stock it, was difficult. Patients had to pay out of pocket – a monthly cost of about $1,700. While that is expensive by American standards, to Germans, this is unheard of. The vast majority of the population – 90% – is on public health insurance. That means that most Germans get medications for $12 a month, no matter what they are. Allegedly, German patients were supposed to get about 5oz a month for this price. At least that is what the law says.
People are curious here. But like other places, the law in Germany has evolved slowlyAs in other countries, no matter what Germans think about recreational reform, the clear majority of them at this point support medical use. And at this point, both legislatively and via the courts, the government has said and been required to provide the drug to Germans patients at low cost.
Unintended Effects & Consequences
Since the law went into effect in March of this year however, things have suddenly turned very dire for patients.
The handful of people who had the right to grow at home – established under lawsuits several years ago – were suddenly told they could no longer do so. They had to go to a doctor and regular pharmacy. Even regular patients in the system found that their insurance companies, allegedly now required to pay, are refusing to reimburse claims. Doctors who prescribed the drug were abruptly informed that they would be financially responsible for every patient’s drug cost for the next two years (about $50,000 per patient).
To add a final blow to an already dire situation, German pharmacies that carried the drug, then announced an additional fee. It is about $9 extra per gram, added at the pharmacy, pushing the price of legitimate cannabis north of $20 dollars per gram. This is justified as a “preparation fee.” Cannabis bud is technically marked as an “unprocessed drug.” This means the pharmacies can charge extra for “processing” the same. In reality this might be a little bud trimming. If that. The current distributors in the market already prep and pre-package the drug.
What this bodes for a future dominated by infused products, oils and concentrates is unclear. However the impact now is large, immediate and expensive in a country where patients also must still go to the pharmacy in person for all prescription drugs.
There is no mail order here, by federal law. Online pharmacies are a luxury for Auslanders.
At minimum, this could mean that without some relief, German patients will go right back into the black market and home grow.While nobody has challenged this situation yet en masse, it is already a sore point not only for patients but across the industry. It means that an already expensive drug has gotten even more expensive. It also means that the government regulations are not working as planned.
At least not yet. For the large Canadian companies now coming into the market with multimillion-dollar investments already sunk in hard costs, Germany will be a loss-leader until the system sorts itself out.
According to Schulz, whose company is now in the thick of it, the new law is very vague. “Currently, there are almost no cannabis flowers available in German pharmacies because companies like us are not allowed to sell them,” says Schulz. “Various different regulatory demands come up that seemed to change on a monthly basis. We are ready to deliver even large amounts of cannabis for a market that might well explode soon – but we first need to overcome the regulatory nightmare that leads to the suffering of so many patients here these days.”
At minimum, this could mean that without some relief, German patients will go right back into the black market and home grow. Black market costs for cannabis are about $10-15 a gram. In other words, exactly the situation the government was hoping to avoid.
What Is Causing The Situation?
The intended effect of the legislation was twofold, according to industry insiders: To legalize cannabis in such a way to meet a rising public demand and, in the face of a court decision, to limit the home grow movement. The latter of which, despite federal regulations, is thriving here. Germans like to grow things, and cannabis is a rewarding plant to nurture.
High attendance at the Mary Jane Grow Expo in Berlin in June is just one sign that the genie is out of this particular bottle. BfArM – the federal agency in charge of regulating narcotics and medical devices – cannot stuff it back.Patients are going back to the way things were
However home grow does not build a professional, high volume cannabis market, much less a highly regulated medical one make. The government also made clear that it is going to have strict inspections and quality controls, and will technically buy all the cannabis produced, per the terms of the bid application process.
However, it is not entirely clear when the government will start actually doing the buying. And why the buying has not started yet. If insurance companies are refusing to pay, this means the government is not reimbursing them. The same government, which has also agreed to do so, as of March 2017.
What Gives On Good Old German Efficiency?
On the streets, patients are going back to the way things were. Many are used to fighting for the only drug that makes them feel better. The euphoria in May, for example, has been replaced with weary acceptance that things might get a bit worse before they really improve.
That said, there is also a realization that more activism and lobbying are required on just about every front. If an extrapolation of data from say Colorado or California is applied to Germany, there are already at least a million eligible patients here, based on the qualifying conditions. The government is planning for an annual increase in medical patients of about 5-10,000 a year, including in the amount of cannabis they are planning on buying from the licensed producers they choose. The numbers, however, are already not matching.Even existing patients are literally being forced into the black market again.
Added to this wrinkle is the other reality that is also looming, particularly now.
With one exception, all of the firms now apparently in contention as finalists for the German government bid will also be supplying a domestic market in Canada that is going rec next summer. One year, in other words, before the German companies even begin producing.
What Is The Upshot For Patients?
Guenther Weiglein is one of the five patients who sued for home grow rights in 2014. He is now suing again for the right to extend home grow privileges until the government figures out its process. He is not the only one. Earlier this year he was told he had to stop his home grow and integrate into the “mainstream” system. So far, he, along with other patients who are suing, including for insurance coverage, have not been able to get cannabis easily through the system, although they are starting to make progress.
Weiglein’s situation is made even more frustrating by the fluidity of the situation. As of late July, he had finally gotten agreement from his insurance company to cover the drug. But now he cannot find a doctor willing to accept the financial risk of prescribing it to him. And in the meantime he has no access to medication.
Talk to any group of advocates right now, and there is one ongoing story. Even existing patients are literally being forced into the black market again.
And those that can’t afford it? They are out of luck. Some patients say a tragedy like someone dying will create the impetus to move this into public eye. A hunger strike here by a leading cannabis doctor earlier this summer has so far not had much impact on policy. There is a great deal of pessimism here, as promised change earlier this year has turned into a long and drawn out multiyear question mark.
If this sounds like a bubbling and untenable situation, especially before a national election, it is. The prospect of another four years of Angela Merkel does not bode well for fast cannabis reform.
That said, the German government is now in an interesting situation. The law has now clearly changed to say that sick Germans are allowed to use cannabis as a drug of choice for chronic diseases when all else fails. Further, the national government has bound the insurance industry to cover it. So far, every patient who has sued for coverage has won. That has not, however, moved the insurance industry altogether. Nor has it solved the problem with doctors prescribing the drug.
Many now ask what will? It is clear, however, that it will change. The question is when, how fast, and in what situations.
The problem will undoubtedly ease by 2019, when the first German crops are finally ready, although it will be far from completely solved.