Here’s Why No One Will Buy The First FDA Approved Cannabis Drug

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The pro-legalization media has been enamored with Epidiolex, the first FDA approved cannabis drug. But little besides the fact that the FDA finally approved a weed-related drug has received any attention. When will the drug come to market, who will be able to buy it? Just because medical marijuana is legal doesn’t make it accessible. This is especially true for Epidiolex, which will cost a small fortune annually, and price out pretty much anyone who could benefit from a marijuana drug that reduces seizures.

CBD Can Treat Seizures

Seizures, which can range in severity from occasional to occurring dozens of times a day, are a common debilitating condition. Certain types of epileptic seizures disproportionately affect children, which can impede developmental growth, prevent them from going to school or sleeping and cause psychological trauma.

Not only can cannabis treat seizures, but it’s often the most effective medicine. Unlike some other less developed fields of cannabis medicine, research shows that CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, can reduce seizures. A game-changing paper published by the British Epilepsy Association back in 2012 concluded, “The evidence strongly supports CBD as a therapeutic candidate for a diverse range of human epilepsies.”

Since then, families have come forward time and time again citing CBD as the only thing that prevented their children from having seizures—no matter what the government says. A year after his mom started giving him hemp oil, she claims her toddler named Silas hasn’t experienced a single seizure. Other parents, like Ashely Surin‘s in Illinois, have fought to give children access to medical marijuana in schools to prevent seizures.

Due to massive public support, most states with medical marijuana programs now include epilepsy as a qualifying condition. Parents in others are pushing to amend legislation to include children, especially those with chronic seizures from conditions like autism and epilepsy.

The First FDA Approved Cannabis Drug

Here’s Why No One Will Buy The First FDA Approved Cannabis Drug

Various pills scattered on a table top. (Jamie/Flickr)

Epidiolex, manufactured by GW Pharmaceuticals is the first FDA-approved cannabis drug. It’s made from cannabidiol oil (CBD), which means it won’t get you high.

Last spring, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that Epidiolex, a CBD medication, effectively reduces seizures. The research found that those who took 20 mg demonstrated a 40 percent reduction in seizures. The second group, which took 10 mg, experienced a similar reduction of 37 percent. The 225 participants ranged from 2 to 55 years old. All of them had Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, which is a severe form of epilepsy.

This is only one of a few of the Epidiolex studies, paid for by GW Pharmaceutics, conducted on humans and animals. In the wake of glowing reviews, the FDA approved the medication. Of course, this is a historic moment in the cannabis and pharma industry’s checkered history (to say the least). But will anyone actually be able to take this cannabis medication?

This Cannabis Drug Costs More Than You Make

According to the New York Times, Epidiolex will cost between $2,500 and $5,000 per month. This adds up to an astounding minimum of $30,000, and potentially as much as $60,000 annually. Since epilepsy is a chronic condition, patients suffering from it use medication for life. As it stands, paying for the FDA approved cannabis drug would be roughly equivalent to putting someone through private college every year.

The average American household (meaning everyone in a family) earns roughly $50,000 per year. This means that the vast majority of Americans make less than what this drug will cost. Even fewer Americans will be able to afford it when factoring in living expenses.

Drug Companies Don’t Want To Pay For Expensive Medication

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Elixinol on display at the CWCB Expo. (Photo by @PonyboyPearson)

Well, what about health insurance? Only 8.8 percent of Americans have health insurance. And even that 8.8 percent would have to pay out of pocket. Insurance companies will fight tooth and nail before covering a drug that expensive for that long.

Look back at how hard insurance companies have worked to avoid paying for legal HIV medications. In 2015, the Daily Beast broke the story of a man whose insurance company stopped paying for Truvada as an HIV preventative medication. He was only one of many in southern states whose insurance providers suddenly stopped covering the drug. Following this negative press, the company has since changed its tune.

And Truvada costs only $13,000 a year. Insurance companies have legal grounds not to cover cannabis medication. Why would they pay for an expensive, scheduled substance that has no medical value according to the federal government?

Medical cannabis cases have already gone to court. Just last week, a New Jersey judge ruled that a state worker was entitled to medical marijuana. This follows a ruling in Maine that an employer did not have to cover an employee’s work injury-related pain. Despite the New Jersey case, the Maine ruling will most likely be the norm. It’s hard, if not illegal, to force an insurance company to cover something federally illegal.

Epidiolex Will Be Expensive Even After Legalization

If all goes well and we legalize medical marijuana federally, and health insurance providers start partially covering medical cannabis, this medication will most likely still be unaffordable. Even if you cut the price of Epidiolex in half to $1,250-$2,500 monthly, that’s still $15,000 to $30,000 per year. More people would be able to afford it than before, though not many.

Will a cheaper, generic version of Epidiolex come out any time soon? The short answer is no. It will be two decades until GW Pharmaceuticals’ patent on the first FDA approved cannabis drug expires. This could mean that the price stays fixed, or relatively high, until 2038.

The Ground-Breaking Cannabis Drug No One Will Take

Here’s Why No One Will Buy The First FDA Approved Cannabis Drug

Epidiolex in production. (Photo Courtesy of GW Pharmaceuticals)

Overall, it is good news that the FDA finally approved a cannabis drug. Epilepsy is a difficult and dangerous condition, so the more options available the better. Plus, most Americans are more comfortable taking a drug in pill form rather than using what they perceive to being medicinal rather than medical cannabis.

All this begs the question: if CBD oil can treat seizures, why do we need a drug manufactured by a pharmaceutical company? Some say that having big pharma involved guarantees higher testing standards. Others argue that testing is skewed, and the FDA has evolved to work with big pharma at the expense of patients who would benefit from more natural remedies.

No matter your option on the larger question of big pharma and cannabis, one thing is for certain: no one can afford this cannabis medication. Though CBD for epilepsy is arguably too pricey already—$100 to $600 monthly according to the Colorado Epilepsy Foundation— but Epidiolex takes it to a whole other level.

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