Insys Therapeutics became the biggest donor to the 2016 anti-marijuana legalization campaign in Arizona four months before the feds arrested six top executives on suspicion of bribing doctors to over-prescribe their dangerous opiate product.
According to their own Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Insys stood to lose big money if marijuana were fully legalized, considering their portfolio of medications also contains branded cannabis distillates, now available only by prescription.
Opposing legal weed to protect their own profits while simultaneously under investigation for pushing what is essentially synthetic heroin is a stunning display of hypocrisy and naked greed.
Insys said in a 2016 statement they opposed the Arizona ballot measure allowing medical and recreational cannabis production and sale because “it fails to protect the safety of Arizona’s citizens, and particularly its children.”
Insys executives weren’t as squeamish about the deadly heroin analog fentanyl they allegedly bribed doctors to foist on unsuspecting patients.
Subsys, the company’s brand, joins other brands of fentanyl implicated in countless opiate overdose deaths in the current heroin/opioid epidemic that has swept rural areas of the U.S.
Those advocating for the failed Arizona legalization initiative pointed to the cannabis derivatives Insys also produces as a reason for the company’s opposition. They issued a statement in September of 2016, after the huge donation was revealed.
“(Insys Therapeutics’) homepage touts their development of ‘pharmaceutical cannabinoids,’ which are synthetic versions of chemical compounds found in marijuana,” said pro-legalization Arizonan J.P. Holyoak, chair of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. “It appears they are trying to kill a non-pharmaceutical market for marijuana in order to line their own pockets.”
Arizona voters defeated the legalization initiative in November with the help of $500,000 from Insys, according to campaign finance records filed with the Arizona Secretary of State.
How Insys Execs Allegedly Pushed The Opiate Fentanyl
The U.S. Department of Justice slapped racketeering charges on former CEO Michael Babich and five other ex-top executives at Insys in December, alleging they bribed doctors tens of thousands of dollars to prescribe Subsys to people who didn’t need it.
Opiate is a term classically used in pharmacology to mean a drug derived from opium. Opioid, a more modern term, is used to designate all substances, both natural and synthetic, that bind to opioid receptors.
Subsys is a potent, highly addictive synthetic opioid approved only for use in cancer patients with severe pain. Insys over the past couple years has derived almost all of its profits from this drug, according to a quarterly report filed with the SEC in December.
The six accused allegedly set up payment mechanisms in collusion with bribed doctors to defraud insurance companies, getting them to pay for multiple, unnecessary prescriptions of the dangerous drug, thereby increasing profits for the Chandler, Ariz.-based company.
“The indictment also alleges that the now former corporate executives charged in the case conspired to mislead and defraud health insurance providers who were reluctant to approve payment for the drug when it was prescribed for non-cancer patients,” U.S. Justice Department officials said in a December statement. “They achieved this goal by setting up the ‘reimbursement unit’ which was dedicated to obtaining prior authorization directly from insurers and pharmacy benefit managers.”
Babich and the other executives pleaded not guilty to the charges in January, and the case was working its way through the courts as of May, 2017.
Insys to Investors: Legal Weed Would Hammer Our Bottom Line
The opiate focused company also has said in past filings with the SEC that marijuana legalization would be a serious threat to their bottom line. The company at the time of that statement was developing a cannabis-based drug for cancer patients.
“Literature has been published arguing the benefits of marijuana over (Insys’ distillate) dronabinol,” company officials state in their 2007 SEC filing. “Moreover, irrespective of its potential medical applications, there is some support in the United States for legalization of marijuana. If marijuana or non-synthetic cannabinoids were legalized in the United States, the market for dronabinol product sales would likely be significantly reduced and our ability to generate revenue and our business prospects would be materially adversely affected.”
Insys has since acquired the ability to manufacture another synthetic THC drug, Syndros, which is the same formulation as the pharma company AbbVie’s Marinol.
Cannabidiol (CBD) and THC (Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol) are the most potent cannabinoids in marijuana. They are at the heart of most of the research into the medicinal uses of cannabis, though the research on whole marijuana is woefully inadequate because federal restrictions make the plant so difficult to obtain and use for research.
August of 2016 was when Insys donated the $500,000 to the political action committee opposing the Arizona measure, Arizonans for a Responsible Drug Policy. During the same year, Insys spend $120,000 to lobby Congress and petition the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration to get permission to market and sell its cannabis-based drugs. This is according to campaign finance statements filed with the Arizona Secretary of State and the finance tracking site OpenSecrets.org.
Cannabis is currently a Schedule I drug under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, a designation asserting it’s as dangerous as heroin with no medical value, though the scientific community has continually refuted this.
Insys was successful in lobbying to get its cannabis-based Syndros classified as a Schedule II drug, which allows doctors to prescribe it.
Other Pharma Players in the Politics of Marijuana Control
Two other companies in the U.S. — AbbVie and GW Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: GWPH) — manufacture cannabis derivatives for prescription.
AbbVie, the larger of the corporations, donated heavily throughout Congress and the Senate, giving to dozens of candidates, Democrat and Republican, according to OpenSecrets.org. The company also spent money petitioning the FDA and DEA, but remained publicly silent on the marijuana issue.
Company officials don’t mention their Marinol brand drug much in SEC filings, so that has led investors to assume the brand is not much of a revenue generator for the company, which also owns the blockbuster arthritis drug Humira, according to The Street.
Appearances may indicate AbbVie doesn’t currently have much interest in entering the legalization debate and may be using its political donations largely to further other interests.
GW Pharmaceuticals, which sells a brand of distilled cannabidiol and THC in combination (Sativex), has actively participated in legalization-friendly initiatives, according to OpenSecrets.
The company lobbied U.S. Senators in 2015 on the following issues, according to federal disclosure forms:
“FDA and DEA regulation of cannabidiol; monitor S. 1333 (Therapeutic Hemp Medical Access Act of 2015), HR 1635 (Charlotte’s Web Medical Access Act of 2015), S. 683/S. 1538 (Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States Act) and activity related to medical marijuana research.”
These were all laws meant to loosen federal restrictions on marijuana in various ways. GW Pharmaceuticals is an English company with some facilities in the U.S. Sativex is not approved for prescription in the U.S.