As research into cannabis genomics has increased in recent years, so has apprehension around the potential for strain monopolies. As history has shown us, agricultural patents have resulted in billions of dollars worth of lawsuits on both sides of the fence. Corporations have used agricultural patents to dominate seed markets and push smaller companies and farmers out of business. Unscrupulous business practices and exploitation of our legal and patent systems are the result of corporate greed and an insatiable thirst for dominating markets.
The cannabis industry isn't far behind industrial agriculture. Major money players are circling the landscape, biding their time while entrepreneurs feel their way in the dark. The large-scale takeover of the industry by multi-national corporations should be expected. It is only a matter of time. The patenting of cannabis strains, both natural and genetically modified, will play a crucial role in this takeover. It is understandable for a company to patent a specific strain, bred by them through either natural or genetically modified means. To patent a natural variety created by Mother Nature herself would seem to be beyond the scope of what we, as humans, would allow. Unfortunately, the precedent for this has already been set.
GV US 6,630,507
The U.S. government sends many mixed signals. Sometimes this happens because the many factions within can't agree on what time it is, and they are constantly at war with each other leaving the general population caught in the middle. When you have one agency saying cannabis has absolutely no medicinal value and is more dangerous than methamphetamine, while another is saying it has the ability to cure cancer, you know you have a problem. While the voice of condemnation comes solely from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the agency in charge of fighting an endless war against individual sovereignty of consciousness, the opposing voice within the government comes in the form of a patent.
US Patent 6630507, titled “Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants,” is held by the United States government via the Department of Health and Human Services. Big shocker for the entity that says marijuana has no medicinal value to secretly have obtained the patent lavishing praise upon its medicinal value. The sheer hypocrisy of the U.S. government should surprise no one at this point. Issued in October 2003, the patent claims that, “Cannabinoids have been found to have antioxidant properties, unrelated to NMDA receptor antagonism. This new found property makes cannabinoids useful in the treatment and prophylaxis of a wide variety of oxidation associated diseases, such as ischemic, age-related, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.”
The government grabs up patents for just about everything and tends not to hinder the development of similar patents on use of the original for the growth of industry. The problem with patents in cannabis being obtained by large private entities is that it spells doom for your mom and pop grower. A new patent that was issued last year has eyebrows raised. It is the first patent of its kind that may have stunning implications for cannabis businesses and cultivators alike.
PATENT US 9095554 B2
Patent number 9095554 was issued on August 4, 2015. It was issued to a bio-engineering firm out of California called Biotech Institute, LLC. It is historically significant, in as far as it is the first U.S. patent issued for a cannabis plant “containing significant amounts of THC.” The patent officially begins the open debate over cannabis and its value as an intellectual property. The patent application along with its history and purpose statement paint a picture for the need of companies to be able to protect their own properties from unlawful theft and thus intellectual infringement. On the surface this would make sense. I'm sure the inventor of the USB drive is pretty happy about patent protection. The question really becomes, does a human have the right to patent something that would otherwise be produced by nature? Again, the answer is unfortunately, yes. Patent 9095554 does not describe one particular specific strain designed by the company. It is a broad spectrum patent that covers the hybridization of cannabis with varying amounts of THC and other cannabinoids. As it reads, it covers virtually any combination of cannabinoids, thus covers all cannabis plants.
There are several problems with patenting pot and that is the requester of the patent has to show that they are the inventor of the item being patented. How does one patent Pineapple Express or Blue Dream, restricting the cultivation and sale of the strain, and think the public is just going to play along? Besides monopolizing control of particular strains and or phenotypes, the foundation has already been laid for widespread control of naturally occurring seeds despite the existential conflict of interest. In the world of agriculture, Monsanto has already exploited loopholes and bought off politicians, fundamentally allowing them to patent nature, setting a dangerous precedent in the process.
Monsanto is already notorious for genetically modifying seeds, monopolizing markets and then going after anyone who infringes on their patents intentionally or accidentally. The same could happen to cannabis, but not necessarily by Monsanto. Monsanto has been successfully exploiting loopholes in the system to obtain patents for basic seeds that have been produced through conventional breeding. These do not meet the requirements for patents; however, in 2013, the European Union (EU) granted Monsanto a patent for natural broccoli seeds. Despite outcries from the European Parliament and from scientists and activists alike, the EPO, or European Patent Office, granted the patent anyway. The gray area that was exploited by Monsanto came in the obscurity of language that differentiates what a natural seed and a genetically modified seed are. The combination of ignorance and a hefty payoff Monsanto-style are what ensured the patent was approved.
The implications for the cannabis industry are not comforting. While Monsanto recently decried that it has no interest in diving head first into the cannabis industry, there are surely other unsavory characters looking to fill the gap that Monsanto would have otherwise left. If companies are allowed to patent individual strains, they will monopolize the product and have full control over the supply of seeds. If a company owns the patent on a strain, they can and most likely will have a one-time use clause, limiting your ability to clone or regrow your own plants. This might be a minor inconvenience for home growers, but it could potentially be crippling for cannabis businesses that depend on furthering their own supply of plants.
When there's a gold rush, it's a good time to be in the pick and shovel business. If that gold rush is cannabis and the pick and shovel salesmen hold the patent to every strain in your grow, whose grow is it really? This is the ultimate fear of a patent-driven industry. The freedom and innovation of today's cannabis breeders will be shackled. No one should have control over nature, but allowing companies to patent cannabis actually does hand over this type of control.
Cory Hughes is a former police officer turned cannabis grower.