A biotech boom coupled with legalization is transforming cannabis into a legitimate, billion-dollar industry.
To the cannabis industry, a patent granted last August was either doomsday or the dawn of a new era, depending on who you asked.
U.S. Patent No. 9095554 covered the “compositions and methods for the breeding, production, processing and use of specialty cannabis.” Filed by a group of California marijuana growers, it covers any cannabis plants with a certain chemical profile, including THC (the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana) and terpenes (the molecules that give different varieties their distinctive odors). Although the government had issued patents on certain compounds derived from the cannabis plant, this was the first time a patent had been issued for the plant itself.
“It’s seen as the big guys versus the little guys. There are a lot of people who are afraid of Big Ag and Big Pharma coming in and taking over,” says Jennifer Martin, a cannabis grower and consultant.
The patent comes as social norms around marijuana are loosening and cash-strapped states turn to the drug to alleviate their budget crises. Today, 20 states have legalized medical marijuana, and pot has become a business valued at $6.7 billion. Although the federal government still classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug with “no accepted medical use,” the industry’s reach—and revenue—is still expected to climb as more states loosen their restrictions on the drug.
As the industry’s supply chain has transitioned from underground growers to legally recognized suppliers, it has caught the attention of scientists and entrepreneurs interested in cataloging and capitalizing on marijuana’s medicinal potential.
In 2011, a group of Canadian scientists published the first full genome sequence of the marijuana strain Purple Kush. In the five years since, both researchers and biotech firms have begun classifying and standardizing marijuana strains so that customers may one day walk into any marijuana dispensary around the country and know that the Girl Scout Cookies strain they bought last week is the same one they’re buying today. The results are transforming the cannabis industry into a potentially high-tech, high-stakes business.
Meanwhile, long-term breeders like Martin fear that if small-time hobbyists can’t compete, they’ll lose the soul of the industry to the likes of Monsanto and Pfizer. These fears have led scientists like Mowgli Holmes of Phylos Biosciences to use DNA sequencing to document as many existing strains as possible and release them into the public domain in an attempt to block more possible patents.
“Whether it wants to or not, the cannabis industry needs to start looking at itself as an agricultural industry. But it’s also a pharma industry. We have a very uniquely placed plant,” says Reggie Gaudino, vice president of scientific operations at Steep Hill Labs in California.
From Shaman to Geneticists
In 2008, a team of scientists announced the discovery of a 2700-year-old cache of medical marijuana in an ancient grave. Located in the mountainous Xinjiang province of far northwestern China, the group says the stash likely belonged to a shaman of the Gushi culture. They strongly suspected the cannabis was used for its psychoactive properties rather than hemp grown for food or fiber because of its unusually high levels of THC. (Their efforts to grow seeds found in the grave were unsuccessful.)
Though the Xinjiang discovery is the oldest physical sample of marijuana yet found, genetic and evolutionary evidence points to a much earlier domestication of the plant, likely around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. We still don’t know which culture first started using marijuana, but Daniela Vergara, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado who studies marijuana, says that it was probably independently domesticated several times in India and China.
“It’s clear that lots of people were interested in breeding cannabis for its particular traits,” Vergara says.
Cannabis has been a popular medical remedy throughout history, being used for pain, nausea, and more. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, cannabis was frequently found in patent medicines, those over-the-counter cure-alls that not infrequently contained everything from morphine to arsenic. The creation of the Food and Drug Act in 1906 made these home remedies harder to find, though they persisted until the 1930s when marijuana was formally criminalized. While it remained legal to conduct scientific research on cannabis, the amount of red tape discouraged all but a few scientists.
Botanist Jonathan Page was one of those few. By 2010, he had spent nearly a decade using a plant’s genome to decode its ability to make a range of complex chemicals. So when a friend saw an email from Tim Hughes at the University of Toronto looking for someone to help sequence the cannabis genome, they immediately forwarded it to Page, who was on sabbatical from the University of Saskatchewan.
“I wrote to Hughes and said, ‘Hey, I’m your guy,’ ” Page says. Hughes agreed, and the two began collaborating.
The team didn’t sequence weed alone; they also compared the marijuana genome to several varieties of hemp. Just as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage all originated from the same plant and developed their unique characteristics through hundreds or thousands of years of plant breeding, so had marijuana and hemp. Starting with the same cannabis plant, humans increased levels of THC to optimize the buzz they were seeking from marijuana while taking hemp down a separate road for its fiber. Page and Hughes settled on one variety of marijuana, the popular Purple Kush strain that they purchased from a Canadian dispensary, and two varieties of hemp which are legal to grow in Canada.
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