According to Holmes, a secretive company called BioTech Institute LLC had begun registering patents on the cannabis plant. Three have already been granted, and several more are in the pipeline, both in the U.S. and internationally. And these are not narrow patents on individual strains like Sour Diesel. These are utility patents, the strongest intellectual-property protection available for crops. Utility patents are so strict that almost everyone who comes in contact with the plant could be hit with a licensing fee: growers and shops, of course, but also anyone looking to breed new varieties or conduct research. Even after someone pays a royalty, they can’t use the seeds produced by the plants they grow. They can only buy more patented seeds.
“Utility patents are big. Scary,” Holmes said. “All of cannabis could be locked up. They could sue people for growing in their own backyards.”
Pot is an industry worth over $40 billion, which makes it the second-most-valuable crop in the U.S. after corn. And even though weed is still federally forbidden, it sounded like whoever was behind BioTech Institute had spent the past several years surreptitiously maneuvering to grab every marijuana farmer, vendor, and scientist in the country by the balls, so that once the drug became legal, all they’d have to do to collect payment is squeeze.Very High Stakes
“The craziest part is no one knows who’s behind this or when they plan to enforce what they have,” Holmes said. He’d heard that BioTech Institute was owned by a mysterious billionaire with an unclear agenda.
Even worse, he believed, the patents might affect our ability to unlock the therapeutic potential of cannabis. With all other crops, from soybeans to carrots, the introduction of utility patents has created obstacles that threaten to reduce genetic diversity. Right now, the word “cannabis” is similar to the word “dog”—covering everything from Chihuahuas to huskies. Each plant contains its own mix of compounds. Some strains suppress your appetite, and others give you the munchies. Some get you high, and some don’t. Many seem to have incredible healing properties. Research in mice has shown that the compounds we’re most familiar with can do everything from increase bone density to shrink tumors, but we’ve hardly scratched the surface on the less common compounds.
“The medical gold mines that we’re looking for are buried in random varieties that are spread around,” Holmes said. Like many people, he hoped legalization would lead to clinical trials, to prove the benefits of marijuana are more than anecdotal. But he worried that one company controlling access to so many kinds of pot would drastically restrict research. And considering how long weed had been illegal and underground, he felt it was ludicrous to claim all these strains were truly novel, as patent law requires.
“I want someone to challenge the patents by proving all of these strains existed before.” He blinked and met my eyes with a solemn zeal. Here came the sales pitch. Questioning the patents’ validity would require cooperation from all corners of the marijuana world. He had a database of strains, but he didn’t think that would be enough. Would I help him get the word out, so more people knew about BioTech Institute?