20 July, 2014

Patenting Drugs - The Case of Marijuana

Drugs are very much a sensitive subject, especially when the law is concerned. Yet, with the ever-growing movement to legalize marijuana, which is gaining a lot of head-wind in the United States, the topic has to be considered from the perspective of business much rather than the perspective of disdain. This would entail revisiting the patentability of at least some sub-sets of drugs in the name of protecting the legitimate business interests of marijuana growers. Would such a change be desirable, and is it possible under today's laws?

In the States of Colorado, where marijuana was legalized in February of this year, sales have been incredible, with the business raking in over 20 million dollars in the first 6 months alone and some estimates seeing it grow to over 100 million dollars in the full year of 2014. Clearly business is booming, and could be argued to only grow if more States enact similar laws. In the market right now there are at least dozens of different strains of cannabis, and much like other commercial products with distinct features of their own, could merit protecting to ensure their viability in the marketplace.

Under 35 USC 161: "Whoever invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant... may obtain a patent [for that plant]". On the face of it, one could easily argue that cannabis plants could be patentable subject matter. This is overshadowed by the fact that marijuana still remains a controlled substance federally under 21 USC 812. It is because of this a federal patent cannot be issued over marijuana plants, effectively making them unpatentable. As the public perception and acceptance of cannabis and its use change, the laws might allow for the patenting of cannabis plants and plant varieties; however this change seems unlikely in the immediate future.

Alan was confused why the police asked about his bag of oregano
Plant varieties could be protected through trademarks, albeit only in name. The USPTO briefly added a category for marijuana in 2010, promptly removing it stating it was "...a mistake". Nevertheless marijuana strains could potentially be protected under trademark legislation, which was well explained by Kal Raustiala: "...trademark protection under both state and federal law does not require registration of the trademark with the government, but merely that the mark actually be used in commerce to identify the source of a particular product or service". Simply put protection is possible, but whether protection would be afforded by the courts is a question that will remain to be answered. One still has to note that trademark protection does not protect the plant strain itself, but merely the name as a badge of origin for that particular product. Trademarks will not necessarily prevent a competitor from using the plant strain and selling it, as long as they use a different name for the product.

As one can see, cannabis is, and will be, a hot-button issue in IP for years to come, and it'll be truly interesting to see where the law will go especially when considering the movement to legalize the substances gains more momentum. From a purely pragmatic, business point of view, the law should accommodate the change and allow for such plant variations to be protected. Whether this will happen will remain to be seen, but this writer for one sees it as almost an inevitability.

Source: Bloomberg

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