Thursday, September 11, 2014

Higher Authorities? - Pharmaceutical Companies, Addiction Experts, and Marijuana Policy

We have often discussed the web of conflicts of interest that is draped over medicine and health care, and seems responsible for much of our current health care dysfunction.  We have discussed examples of conflicts of interest affecting clinical research, clinical teaching, clinical care, and health care policy.  Each time I think we must have cataloged all the useful examples, a striking new one appears.

So, let us get down into the weeds, so to speak, in the trendy new area of marijuana policy.

I am not about to express an opinion on whether marijuana will prove to be useful in health care, but certainly some people are advocating that it might be while others are advocating for the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana for social and health reasons.  Others, of course, do not agree.

Now Vice News, which advertises itself as "an international news organization created by and for a connected generation," has published an article by investigative journalist Lee Fang about conflicts of interest, key opinion leaders, and marijuana policy.  Its main premise was,

As Americans continue to embrace pot—as medicine and for recreational use—opponents are turning to a set of academic researchers to claim that policymakers should avoid relaxing restrictions around marijuana. It's too dangerous, risky, and untested, they say. Just as drug company-funded research has become incredibly controversial in recent years, forcing major medical schools and journals to institute strict disclosure requirements, could there be a conflict of interest issue in the pot debate?

VICE has found that many of the researchers who have advocated against legalizing pot have also been on the payroll of leading pharmaceutical firms with products that could be easily replaced by using marijuana. When these individuals have been quoted in the media, their drug-industry ties have not been revealed.

The article profiled three prominent physicians who advocate against easing rules on marijuana.  The first was Dr Herbert Kleber, a Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Division of Substance Abuse at Columbia.  Per the article, he

has been quoted in the press and in academic publications warning against the use of marijuana, which he stresses may cause wide-ranging addiction and public health issues.


what's left unsaid is that Kleber has served as a paid consultant to leading prescription drug companies, including Purdue Pharma (the maker of OxyContin), Reckitt Benckiser (the producer of a painkiller called Nurofen), and Alkermes (the producer of a powerful new opioid called Zohydro).

Then there was Dr A Eden Evins, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard and Director of the Center for Addiction Medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital,  who

is a frequent critic of efforts to legalize marijuana. She is on the board of an anti-marijuana advocacy group, Project SAM, and has been quoted by leading media outlets criticizing the wave of new pot-related reforms. 'When people can go to a 'clinic' or 'cafe' and buy pot, that creates the perception that it's safe,' she told the Times last year.


when Evins participated in a commentary on marijuana legalization for the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, the publication found that her financial relationships required a disclosure statement, which noted that as of November 2012, she was a 'consultant for Pfizer and DLA Piper and has received grant/research support from Envivo, GlaxoSmithKline, and Pfizer.' Pfizer has moved aggressively into the $7.3 billion painkiller market. In 2011, the company acquired King Pharmaceuticals (the makers of several opioid products) and is currently working to introduce Remoxy, an OxyContin competitor.

Finally, there was Dr Mark L Kraus, described as a private practitioner and board member of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM).  He

submitted testimony in 2012 in opposition to a medical marijuana law in Connecticut. 


 According to financial disclosures, Kraus served on the scientific advisory panel for painkiller companies such as Pfizer and Reckitt Benckiser in the year prior to his activism against the medical pot bill.

Mr Fang's argument that the relationships among these physicians who advocate against liberalized marijuana laws and pharmaceutical companies constitute conflicts of interest did not seem unreasonable

Studies have found that pot can be used for pain relief as a substitute for major prescription painkillers. The opioid painkiller industry is a multibillion business that has faced rising criticism from experts because painkillers now cause about 16,000 deaths a year, more than heroin and cocaine combined. Researchers view marijuana as a safe alternative to opioid products like OxyContin, and there are no known overdose deaths from pot.

Assuming the validity of this argument, the article also noted institutional conflicts of interest affecting organizations that publicly advocate against loosening marijuana restrictions,

I reported for the Nation that many of the largest anti-pot advocacy groups, including the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions for America, which has organized opposition to reform through its network of activists and through handing out advocacy material (sample op-eds against medical pot along with Reefer Madness-style videos, for example), has relied on significant funding from painkiller companies, including Purdue Pharma and Alkermes. Pharmaceutical-funded anti-drug groups like the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and CADCA use their budget to obsess over weed while paying lip-service to the much bigger drug problem in America of over-prescribed opioids.


As we have discussed previously, narcotics addiction is a very difficult clinical and societal problem.  That makes it all the more distressing that research and teaching about, clinical practice affecting and health policy related to narcotics and narcotics addiction has been tangled up with the increasingly aggressive marketing of prescription narcotics.  Now it turns out that the companies that make and market narcotics seem to be tangled up with addiction medicine experts who are not such big fans of medical or recreational marijuana. (And it turns out once again that the physicians who claim expertise on treatment of addiction have financial relationships with the companies that market addictive medications.)

There seems to be no corner of medicine and health care untouched by the web of conflicts of interest.  So once again we call for all conflicts to be disclosed in the interests of honesty.  Beyond that, as we have been saying for years, patients' and the public's health would benefit from an aggressive effort to reduce conflicts of interest affecting clinical and health policy decision making.     

Put that in your pipe and smoke it. 


james gaulte said...

I am reminded of the economist Bruce Yandle's catch phrase "Baptist and the Bootleggers"

Michael S. Altus, PhD, ELS said...

I suggest that it be of interest to look for conflicts of interest by those who evaluate the use of fecal transplantation for treating Clostridium difficile infections and for treating inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's colitis.