How Is Big Pharma Responding to CBD?

How Is Big Pharma Responding to CBD?

You can buy CBD off the shelf for your well-being and lifestyle. And yet, there is scientific evidence that CBD may work for medical conditions as well. This possibility is what pharmaceuticals want to address.

Pharmaceutical companies in several countries, primarily in the United States, Europe, and Israel, have been driven by public demand and also initial findings regarding CBD and cannabis’ therapeutic potential. They want to develop drugs and medication based on cannabis and target it at specific health conditions.

This will signify an enormous shift for CBD.  Instead of being sold as a supplement, without a precise regulatory framework, we may soon see CBD or cannabis-based drugs developed after years of rigorous clinical trials and with definitive and proven health benefits. These CBD drugs will be tested and regulated, leaving little doubt about their potency, purity, or effectiveness.

Pharmaceuticals like Johnson & Johnson, Teva, Pfizer, and others are spending billions of investment on CBD research and clinical trials. It would appear that the future of CBD as a medication is coming soon.

Why do pharmaceuticals want to invest in CBD research?

Pharmaceuticals are spending money to run clinical trials and research on CBD. Why are they doing that?

A rapid increase in consumer demand

There is increasing demand from consumers for CBD products. Thanks to the increased awareness surrounding CBD, people are more willing to experiment with CBD. In the United Kingdom, 11% of people take CBD on a regular basis [1]. Most of them do so to alleviate pain, inflammation, and anxiety.

The overall UK CBD market increased exponentially in 2021, reaching almost £700 million—way above the originally expected £520 million [2]. This was partly due to the lockdowns that increased people’s anxieties and turned them to CBD as a potential botanical help. Even without that, though, there is a steady and consistent increase in how people perceive and consume CBD. This trend is obvious beyond the United Kingdom, in the United States, Europe, Canada, and Australia.

Legalisation of CBD

An increasing number of countries are legalising the consumption of CBD. Almost all of Europe, along with Argentina, Chile, and Peru are amongst the countries that have legalized the production, sale, and consumption of CBD [3]. Various limitations have been instigated, for instance the requirement of a prescription in some countries. Overall, though, the global trend is towards liberalising the consumption of CBD.

The 2018 World Health Report [4] that clearly stated that CBD is well-tolerated and non-addictive gave a further push for governments to legalise its consumption.

As more people are consuming CBD, pharmaceuticals are following this trend. More global awareness and recognition means that once CBD drugs are delivered on the market, people will be open and receptive to trying them.

A shift in public opinion

With more people trying CBD, there comes a shift in public opinion. CBD is not an unheard substance people are suspicious of but a plant compound that most people know about. Pharmaceuticals feel more confident to run clinical trials on something that people feel comfortable with. It means that a future CBD drug has the potential to be well-received by the public.

Anecdotal evidence

There is anecdotal evidence and plenty of studies suggesting that CBD may be helpful with certain health issues and conditions such as inflammation, pain, anxiety, depression, nausea, and more.

Online forums, people’s conversations, and the general public have been talking about CBD’s effectiveness for years. While there may be a placebo effect at play in some cases, many consumers choose CBD for its minor side effects and its perceived effectiveness in alleviating certain conditions. Pharmaceutical companies are monitoring closely people’s perceptions and their reactions to CBD.

Preliminary trials

Preliminary trials regarding CBD’s effectiveness and potential for inflammation, pain, anxiety, and depression are promising.

Reviews and research are showing that CBD has anti-oxidative properties [5] and that it displays anti-inflammatory qualities [6]. Reviews have also demonstrated that CBD could be a considerable treatment for anxiety disorders [7].

These initial findings are pushing pharmaceutical companies to further investigate how they can produce effective drugs from hemp and cannabis.

What problems do pharmaceuticals face during research and clinical trials?

The legalisation of CBD is only recent. Until a few years ago, CBD and cannabis were classified as illegal substances. Research labs and the medical community had little incentive—or opportunity—to study hemp and CBD.

How to find quality CBD from hemp

Research labs are still finding it difficult to access quality CBD.

Up until May 2021, in the whole United States, there was only one place, namely a facility at the University of Mississippi, that would deliver cannabis specimens to research labs. Quality was dubious and researchers had no choice regarding hemp strains or other important variables.

Similar obstacles had been erected in Europe and other countries, systematically limiting and obstructing quality research into CBD’s potential.

Since May 2021, the DEA announced that it would create a registry where companies could freely register to provide cannabis for scientific, research, and medical purposes. 

The extraction method

There are various extraction methods to produce CBD, such as CO2 extraction and ethanol. A research lab must be sure about the quality and purity of the CBD it obtains. Extraction methods can leave by-products behind that could skew the results of clinical trials.

The role of synthetic CBD

Linked to the previous point, researchers are studying synthetic CBD instead of plant CBD. Synthetic CBD could be produced in labs with the exact purity and potency required.

However, it is still unknown whether synthetic CBD is as effective as botanical CBD. More research and clinical trials are necessary to explore that possibility by comparing different sources of CBD and determining the results.

CBD isolate or full-spectrum? The entourage effect

Most clinical trials have been performed with CBD isolate. However, hemp is much more than CBD. It contains hundreds of other cannabinoids as well as other compounds such as terpenes and flavonoids. These compounds have been shown to have their own anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety properties.

There is increasing research into what has been called the entourage effect [8]. When CBD is combined with its botanical siblings, it appears it works better and more effectively, in a synergetic effect between all compounds.

Pharmaceuticals must run clinical trials with both CBD isolate and full-spectrum to see whether they deliver different results.

Matching dose to condition

During trials, pharmaceuticals need to establish the right dosage. This is particularly crucial, as some clinical trials suggest that CBD may be biphasic, having an opposite effect if taken in small and large doses. When pharmaceutical companies run trials, they must evaluate the dosage that works best for each condition.

CBD’s interaction with drugs

CBD is metabolized by the liver through the CYP450 enzyme. This enzyme also metabolizes most other medications.

There are some concerns regarding how CBD affects other drugs that are absorbed by the liver: even paracetamol passes through the CYP450 enzyme.

Clinical trials must determine CBD’s interaction with other drugs and whether they increase or decrease each other’s effectiveness.

Finally, clinical trials must establish any counter-indications and side effects of CBD. So far, the general consensus is that CBD produces few side effects, mostly drowsiness, dry mouth, and diarrhoea. However, we must be sure about the long-term side effects of CBD, including on the liver where it is metabolized.

Pharmaceuticals are showing strong interest in CBD

For the past few years, pharmaceuticals have been making significant investments in research related to CBD.

Large pharmaceutical companies have developed subsidiaries or bought existing firms to enlarge their portfolios and focus their research on cannabis and CBD.


The American pharmaceutical Pfizer signed an agreement with Arena Pharmaceuticals for its cannabinoid operation. Arena is developing a cannabis-based gastrointestinal drug. As a spokesperson for Pfizer pointed out, Pfizer’s acquisition deepens its research into “developing potential therapies for patients with debilitating immuno-inflammatory diseases with a need for more effective treatment options.” [10]

While Arena’s research is on gastrointestinal conditions, the findings could be used for further research into other inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, endometriosis, and even obesity. Pfizer seems to think there is a future in this area.

Johnson and Johnson

Avicanna, which is linked to Johnson and Johnson, researches cannabis at Johnson and Johnson’s headquarters in Canada [11]. It is developing uses for CBD in cosmetics, medical cannabis, and pharmaceuticals. In the case of pharmaceuticals, they are focusing on dermatology, chronic pain, and neurological disorders.

Teva Pharmaceuticals

Teva Pharmaceuticals is an Israeli giant that is turning its attention to medical cannabis. It recently bought a medical cannabis supplier called Cannbit-Tikun Olam which will provide Teva with quality cannabis to produce quality and standardized medical cannabis products.

As Teva’s CEO recently noted, “it is clear to many in the pharmaceutical industry and in the medical community that use of oils produced from specific cannabis strains may provide additional treatment options and respond to unaddressed medical needs of patients.” [12]

So popular is cannabis research in Israel that The Washington Post recently hailed cannabis as saving kibbutzim—Israel’s iconic communal farms that have now entered the rapidly emerging medical marijuana industry [13]. The Israeli Innovation Authority will invest nearly $10 million to launch a cannabis incubator in the southern desert town of Yeruham, alongside an almost $40 million investment by the private Israeli cannabis manufacturing company Breath of Life.

Today, more than 100,000 Israelis hold a permit allowing them to possess or use medical marijuana. They include Israeli soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, whose cannabis treatment is covered by the government, and children with epilepsy and autism, whose treatment is mostly subsidized by national HMOs.

Abbott Laboratories

AbbVie, a spin-off of Abbott Laboratories has produced Marinol, a synthetic-cannabinoid drug to combat appetite loss [14]. Interestingly, AbbVie also makes drugs for seizures, arthritis, and inflammatory diseases such as Crohn’s and psoriasis. CBD and cannabis have been studied for their effectiveness in helping with conditions such as these. It would be interesting to see whether the know-how from Marinol could be used for research into such auto-immune inflammatory diseases.

Medication from CBD?

The increased interest of pharmaceuticals in research on CBD and cannabis in general is highly promising. It suggests that we could have more definitive and precise findings regarding the effectiveness of CBD in actively treating conditions such as chronic pain, inflammation, anxiety, depression, and nausea, among others.

We can envision a near future where CBD-based medications and drugs are prescribed by the NHS for particular conditions. Until then, however, CBD is to be used by healthy individuals to support their health rather than a drug to treat any condition.



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