Alliances ahead of the race

Medical alliances in the medicinal cannabis space promise education initiatives over commercial interests. Will this trend benefit patients and medical professionals in the long-run?

By: Juliana Salazar

Canadian cannabis giant Aphria announced on March 12 that its Colombian subsidiary, Colcanna had signed an exclusive agreement with the Colombian Medical Federation (FMC), a national guild of medicine professionals. Both organizations will join efforts and resources to develop the first education curriculum on medicinal marijuana in the country.

Aphria’s President, Jakob Ripshtein said at the launch that the company will work with the FMC to promote conferences, seminars and a virtual platform to ensure the medical community can access updated cannabis knowledge. Also, the medical assistance team will give all FMC members access to 40 of the best cannabis research studies in the world.

For Colombia’s leading cannabis firms, the work of applying for licenses and developing cultivation and fabrication facilities is only one side of the coin. They are also focused on priming the local market for their products – and forming alliances with medical associations is a central part of that strategy. Khiron Life Sciences (TSXV: KHRN) has three such partnerships and in 2017, it sponsored a number of events through its cooperation agreement with the Colombian Neurology Association. In 2018, PharmaCielo (TSX:PCLO) acquired Ubiquo, a leading telemedicine service provider, which lead to the development of an education platform on the medical uses of cannabis. Lastly, Blueberries Medical signed a deal to sell their products to El Manantial, a network of medical centers expected to expand its patient coverage from 7,000 to 50,000 in the coming three years.

As the industry hurtles towards first production, it makes sense that companies work to boost local demand for their medicines and treatments in tandem with the development of supply. Studies conducted by various organizations have shown that Colombian doctors have no ethical or medical problems with prescribing cannabis, but the types of treatments and dosages remains a mystery to them. Any efforts to close this knowledge gap should be welcomed.

However, it is the word “exclusive” that causes concern amongst many local medical professionals. If doctors’ training in cannabis is restricted to a single company’s products and research materials, the assumption is that they will be more likely to prescribe only those treatments they are most comfortable and practiced in, potentially cutting patient access to other products. “If those who sell also educate, they are educating to sell not to practice medicine,” tweeted María José Bustamante, a Colombian pharmaceutical chemist and cannabis advocate. “This isn’t the purpose of education, it’s marketing.”

FMC director Dr Sergio Isaza was clear that his federation’s partnership with a cannabis producer did not present an inherent conflict of interest, pointing out that the agreement would maintain complete freedom for doctors to prescribe any cannabis medicine. The deal is also a great opportunity for Aphria to work with doctors and patients and become a household name in Colombia. In many ways it is no different from many of the ways that pharmaceutical companies market their products to doctors and hospitals.

Companies would do well to remember that the Colombian healthcare sector has become increasingly politicized in recent years. The laissez-fair attitude of the early 2000s led to bumper profits for drug makers and distributors, before spawning a consumer backlash, strict price controls and tougher approval processes. The Colombian government has struck a welcoming tone for medicinal marijuana but its consumer protection groups will be on the look- out for instances of unfair practices. Companies would do well to ensure the patient comes first.