It may not have quite the same ring to it as a certain seven-digit number made famous in song in 1981, but 6,630,507 has been growing increasingly internet-famous since last week.
Following the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s inaction on rescheduling marijuana, legalization proponents have responded by taking to the internet to highlight Patent No. 6,630,507 — telling the DEA to “talk to the hand” by writing “6,630,507” on their palms, hashtagging the number and linking to past articles on the topic.
Since not all Americans are intimately familiar with patents — and because of the reams of misinformation out there regarding this patent in particular — here’s a handy explainer about Patent No. 6,630,507:
U.S. Patent No. 6,630,507 covers the potential use of non-psychoactive cannabinoids — chemical compounds found within the plant species cannabis sativa — to protect the brain from damage or degeneration caused by certain diseases, such as cirrhosis.
U.S. Patent No. 6,630,507 was granted to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2003.
The recent social media flurry has consisted of posts varying in allegations and accuracy — some have claimed that the government patented the marijuana plant in its entirety. But the overall intent is one that is symbolic in nature, said Sam Mendez, an intellectual property and public policy lawyer who serves as the executive director of the University of Washington’s Cannabis Law & Policy Project.
“Naturally, it shows that there is a certain amount of hypocrisy that there is ‘no accepted medical use’ for cannabis according to federal law,” Mendez said. “And yet here you have the very same government owning a patent for, ostensibly a medical use for marijuana.
“It’s certainly hypocritical, but there’s no laws against doing so.”
Mendez, patent lawyers, the research arm of the HHS and the New York biopharmaceutical firm that’s working as an exclusive licensee under the patent also caution that the existence of Patent No. 6,630,507 isn’t necessarily so black and white.
“(The federal government is) a very large organization with hundreds of thousands of federal employees and innumerable number of departments,” he said. “It’s much more complicated than to think about them as a single organism. … The government is allowed to file and obtain patents, and that has no bearing on the Controlled Substances Act.”
More broadly, the existence of Patent No. 6,630,507 shines a light on what could result from legalization — an explosion of marijuana-related patents, he said.
No. 6,630,507’s inception
The National Institutes of Health has roughly 6,000 doctoral-level scientists in its employ, working mostly in Maryland, said Mark Rohrbaugh, who holds doctorates in biochemistry and law and is special adviser for technology transfer at the NIH. When one of those scientists invents a new technology or makes a new discovery, the NIH evaluates the result and determines whether to file for a patent.
In this case, the researchers discovered that non-psychoactive compounds in cannabis may potentially have antioxidant properties that could be beneficial in the treatment of certain neurological diseases, she said.
“This patent describes the therapeutic potential for cannabinoid chemical compounds that are structurally similar to THC, but without its psychoactive properties, thereby treating specific conditions without the adverse side effects associated with smoked marijuana,” Myles wrote via e-mail. “It should be noted that the patent is for the use of cannabinoid compounds similar to and including those that naturally occur in marijuana (cannabis), but not for the whole marijuana plant.”
The DEA’s decision has nothing to do with the NIH’s cannabis-related patent, Rohrbaugh said. The patent doesn’t yet prove the chemical compound is effective in the stated treatment, he said, adding that the compound would have to be purified, synthesized in a lab setting, subjected to extensive testing in animals and humans, and ultimately require U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to show that it’s safe and effective for the intended purpose.
The intent behind patenting and licensing NIH discoveries is to not have technology that could potentially benefit the public sit idle, he said.
To ensure this, it sometimes requires looping in the private sector, he said. Laws in the 1980s further established the technology-transfer capabilities of entities such as the federal government and universities to have discoveries accessible to others who are in a better position to progress research and potentially commercialize the developments. The entities behind the discoveries typically receive payments as part of the licensing agreement.