Medical Marijuana Companies are Rushing to File Patents

The growing legalization of medical marijuana across the United States has led to a boom in various companies that support all aspects of the industry. Technological advances in the medical marijuana range from proprietary hybrid strains of cannabis, to clean and efficient growing systems, software-based analytics and monitoring, and packaging and distribution infrastructure.

Vice News reported last year about a potential “looming patent war” in the medical marijuana industry, as many companies large and small in this emerging space rush to obtain patent protection on technologies to give them a competitive edge. Envision IP analyzed US patents related to medical marijuana to identify key patent holders, as well as aspects of the industry which are being patented.

Solvay Pharmaceuticals B.V., acquired by Abbott Laboratories in 2010, and spun off as AbbVie in 2013 (NYSE: ABBV), manufactures Marinol, a cannabinoid capsule used for weight loss and nausea. Solvay owns 17 patents related to its pharmaceutical compounds of its cannabinoid-based products.

Jenrin Discovery, Inc., a privately-held US company, owns 9 US patents and 3 pending, published US patent applications related to treating metabolic disorders using cannabinoid receptor antagonists/inverse agonists.

Cara Therapeutics Inc. (NASDAQ: CARA) is a clinical-stage bio-pharmaceutical company focused on developing and commercializing new chemical entities designed to alleviate pain. The company owns 9 US patents related to compounds that are modulators for cannabinoid receptors, and which can be used for the treatment of cannabinoid receptor-associated diseases.

GW Pharmaceuticals Limited (NASDAQ: GWPH), a bio-pharmaceutical company, owns 8 issued patents and 22 pending, published applications specifically related to proprietary uses for, extraction methods of, and hybrid strains of cannabis. The company holds patents for treating a number of medical ailments, such as epilepsy, constipation, and cancer (gliblastoma multiforme), as well as side-effects such as general pain and nausea experienced by cancer patients undergoing traditional therapies.

Full Spectrum Laboratories Limited, an Irish subsidiary of Teewinot Life Sciences Corporation, owns 5 US patents and 5 pending, published US patent applications in this space. The company’s patents related to production processes for biosynthetic cannabinoid formulations and compounds.

Insys Therapeutics, Inc. (NASDAQ: INSY) is a specialty pharmaceutical company which also manufactures fentanyl, owns 4 US patents and 4 pending, published US patent applications in this space. The company’s patents relate to oral and liquid cannabinoid formulations.

Arena Pharmaceuticals Inc. (NASDAQ: ARNA) is a bio-pharmaceutical company that is developing ADP371, a cannabinoid-based pain treatment. The company owns 1 US patent and 2 pending, published US patent applications related to its pain treatment product using cannabinoid receptor modulators.

Zynerba Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (NASDAQ: ZYNE) is a clinical-stage pharmaceutical company dedicated to the development of innovative transdermal synthetic cannabinoid treatments. The company owns 1 US patents and 1 pending, published US patent application related to THC prodrugs.

Axim Biotechnologies, Inc. (OTCMKTS: AXIM) is a biotechnology company focusing on the research, development, and production of cannabinoid-based pharmaceuticals. The company owns 5 pending, published US patent applications related to cosmetic, topical, anti-microbial, and oral care compositions comprising cannabinoids and cannabigerol, as well as to processes to extract and purify THC..

Echo Pharmaceuticals B.V. is a privately-held company focused on the formulation, production and development of pharmaceutical products based on cannabis components. The company owns 4 pending, published US patent applications related to tablets and granulates contained cannabidiol and THC.

Corbus Pharamaceuticals, Inc. (NASDAQ: CRBP) is a clinical-stage pharmaceutical firm is developing a synthetic oral endocannabinoid-mimetic drug, Resunab, for treating chronic inflammation and halting fibrotic processes without causing immunosuppression. The company owns 3 pending, published US patent applications related to its drug.

Biotech Institute, LLC owns 3 pending, published US patent applications related to breeding, productions, and processing of specialty cannabis.

Afgin Pharma, LLC owns 3 pending, published US patent applications related to topical cannabinoid therapy.

United Cannabis Corp. (OTC: CNAB) provides consulting services, proprietary products and licenses its intellectual property to businesses in the cannabis industry. The company owns 2 pending, published US patent applications related to preparing cannabis extracts.

Aside from the emerging players mentioned above, a handful of large-cap pharmaceutical companies have patents in this space. For example, AbbVie, Inc. owns 35 US patents and 2 pending, published US patent applications related to compounds for cannabinoid receptor ligands, and various uses thereof (in addition to the patents assigned to its predecessor company Solvay Pharmaceuticals). Bristol-Myers Squibb owns 21 US patents related to compounds and formulations for cannabinoid receptor modulators. Sanofi-Aventis and Merck & Co. Inc. owns 9 and 3 US patents, respectively, directed toward cannabinoid receptor antagonists..

The growth of patent application filings in this space has been tremendous in recent years. Between 1997 and the mid-2000s there was relatively little activity, with the majority of patent applications during this period filed by academic and research-based institutions. Since 2009 however, when many states began legalizing medical marijuana, and subsequently decriminalizing recreational marijuana use, patent applications spiked from 21 in 2009 to a peak of 87 in 2015. In 2016 there were 71 applications filed, and the number is likely higher as US patent applications become publicly available 18 months after their earliest effective filing date.

Overall, we identified 266 active, in-force US patents, and 255 pending, published US patent applications related to cannabis technology, primarily related to compounds, formulations, and various delivery mechanisms for therapy and treatment. However, there is a growing number of patents related to manufacturing processes, including hydroponic and aquaponic systems specifically for industrial production uses. We expect to see additional filings and patents in the coming years related to software and systems for commercial cannabis operations, from warehousing and supply-chain, to distribution, marketing, dispensing, and quality control. In addition, the continued evolution of cannabis as a therapy wil likely lead to innovative delivery mechanisms and devices. We have already seen from patent filings that topical, oral, liquid, and spray forms of cannabis have been developed.

We did not identify any of these patents being involved in offensive or defensive litigation. However, as the Vice article suggested, as more companies enter into this competitive space, there is an increased likelihood that patent owners may resort to litigation in an effort to block out new entrants. In addition, as we have seen in the mobile device and Internet technologies space, legacy companies with large portfolios have been able to sell patents to emerging companies. We would not be surprised if many of the large cap pharmaceutical companies, as well as the numerous academic and research institutions owning patents in the cannabis technology space divested patents to companies wishing to commercialize medical and recreational grade cannabis.