After 33 years of pushing legal drugs for the makers of the highly addictive narcotic painkiller OxyContin, the company’s former president and CEO, John Stewart, has decided to go into a kinder, gentler business—medical marijuana.
In 2013, Stewart left Purdue Pharma, the infamous pharmaceutical company that single-handedly gave America its current opioid epidemic. He is now a co-founder of Emblem Cannabis Corp., a medical marijuana company based in Paris, Ontario.
Stewart credits his time at Purdue Pharma for sparking his current interest in finding better ways to deliver the medical benefits of marijuana to patients. He says the multi-billion dollar company did some early research into therapeutic cannabis but never brought it to market.
The OxyContin clan, or the Sackler family that owns Purdue Pharma, was probably too busy striving to be named to Forbes 2015 list of America’s Richest Families with their stunning $14 billion.
How did the Sacklers—AKA the billionaires behind the addiction crisis—build the 16th largest fortune in the country? The short answer is OxyContin and cozying up to physicians who happily pushed it over other pain meds to combat everything from back pain to arthritis to post-operative discomfort.
Ironically, Stewart’s new job might end up eating away at the bottom line of opioid manufacturers. Studies show that medical marijuana has reduced painkiller abuse in states where is it legal, now a grand total of 28, including Washington DC.
Recent research also suggests that cannabis has the potential to help alcoholics and people addicted to opioids kick their habit.
Stewart maintains there is still a place for powerful opioids that can help relieve severe and chronic pain.
“I saw a lot of patients who really, really, really had their pain improved by these drugs, of which OxyContin was only one,” he said in a BBC report.
He did concede that anti-opioid sentiment is valid based on the “social disruption” it has caused.
Let’s do the “social disruption” numbers.
In the U.S., an estimated 1.9 million Americans were addicted to prescription opioid painkillers in 2014. Accidental overdoses from prescription painkillers quadrupled between 1999 and 2012. In 2014, drug overdoses were the leading accidental cause of death, driven by prescription opioids.
As addiction, overdoses and accidental deaths rose, Purdue Pharma found itself facing charges that it had misbranded OxyContin as far less risky than it was.
A case brought by the State of Kentucky alleging false marketing has been winding its way through the courts since 2007. Damages could exceed $1 billion.
Not everyone welcomes former pharmaceutical executives to the pot business.
“Nobody says to me to my face: ‘We are terrified Big Pharma’s going to come take over this industry.’ However, they are,” Stewart said. “These days nobody wants Big Pharma, particularly in the United States, to do anything.”
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