Tilray marijuana products to start carrying drugmaker Sandoz name

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It could still be several years before Health Canada lets companies make health claims for marijuana products but industry is getting ready.

Three months after announcing a deal with cannabis grower Tilray Inc., generic drug major Sandoz Canada Inc. has signed off on the use of its name for marijuana products.

On Tuesday, the company, a subsidiary of Novartis International AG, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, announced that eight of Tilray’s non-combustible products, already sold under Canada’s mail-order medical marijuana system, would start carrying Sandoz branding.     

“We think it’s going to bring a lot of credibility to the product, vis-à-vis the patients and the physicians and the pharmacists. Sandoz is an old brand, it’s well known in the Canadian market. We fill over 50 million prescriptions a year with Sandoz products,” said Michel Robidoux, president and general manager of Sandoz Canada.

The partnership is the first significant foray by an established pharmaceutical company into Canada’s medical marijuana market. Licensed producer CannTrust Holdings is working to develop products alongside generic drug company Apotex Inc., but the two companies have yet to bring co-branded products to market.  

At this early stage, the Tilray-Sandoz partnership is mostly a sales exercise, with Sandoz Canada lending its name, national sales force and clout with regulators to Tilray’s existing product slate.

Going forward, however, Robidoux said Sandoz Canada could take a more active role in research and development.

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“We need to review all of the current studies or research that they’ve done, and then (we’ll see) where do we move from there,” said Robidoux.

Over the past few years the number of registered medical marijuana patients in Canada has increased rapidly. At the end of December, there were nearly 270,000 patients registered with Health Canada.

Research, however, has not kept pace with interest in the drug as a treatment for illnesses ranging from insomnia to epilepsy.

Ultimately it will be research, more than branding, that helps marijuana become a mainstream medical product, said Marc Wayne, chief executive of Canopy Health Innovations Inc., a subsidiary of Canopy Growth Corp. that focuses on developing clinical products.  

“It’s easy to put out a product in a capsule form and sell it,” said Wayne. “You’re not answering the other part of the equation, which is what doctors really want, which is how much of that consistent dose should I be giving my patients, in what levels, how many times a day, and what ratio of different cannabinoids should I be giving them and for what particular indication.”

Even with the involvement of major pharmaceutical players such as Sandoz, Canadian cannabis companies are still several years away from getting the go-ahead from Health Canada to make health claims for a marijuana products, said Wayne. That requires several stages of testing, including large-scale clinical trials.

Luckily, much of the early-stage testing for product safety can be skipped, said Wayne.

“Because it’s been used for many years with many thousands of people… that eliminates a large part of the preclinical work that’s required to get drug approval, which shortens the timelines and the costs of the research program,” he said.

Once a drug goes through Health Canada’s process and gets a Drug Identification Number (DIN), it becomes considerably easier for pharmacies to stock and sell. The lack of DINs is not, at this point at least, stopping pharmacies from wanting their share of the medical cannabis market.

“When there’s medications that come onto the market, we like to know they are supported by evidence as much as possible, but it’s also balancing it with the reality that patients are using cannabis for medical reasons,” said Joelle Walker, director of public affairs for the Canadian Pharmacists Association.

“We want to make sure they’re not necessarily forgoing their traditional treatments if they’re not getting the right information.”

A number of pharmacy chains, most notably Shoppers Drug Mart, have applied to Health Canada for a licence to sell medical marijuana.

Sandoz Canada’s Robidoux says a big part of his company’s involvement in the cannabis space will focus on advocating for pharmacy sales. The federal government has largely left it up to provinces to decide whether or not they want to allow pharmacies to sell medical marijuana.

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