Very British approach to the business of cannabis

Business Profile: Geoffrey Guy believes his company is close to success in creating a legal drug from an illegal one
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The Independent Online

Geoffrey Guy has a conviction: possession of cannabis, with intent to supply. Not a criminal conviction, of course, since Dr Guy is an upstanding businessman and pillar of the community in Dorset. Just an evangelical belief that cannabis has an array of medical benefits and that his own painkiller, developed from the plant, will be available on the National Health within months.

He is the G in GW Pharmaceuticals, its founder, executive chairman, and cheerleader-in-chief. He saw that the Home Office was sympathetic to multiple sclerosis sufferers who had long argued cannabis had medical benefits, but that outright legalisation was a non-starter. So he asked for a license to grow the plant and, barely five years later, GW is tantalisingly close to launching its under-the-tongue spray, called Sativex.

"We represent the manifestation of government policy," he says. "If we disappeared tomorrow the Government would not have a policy. Her Majesty's Government has taken a very clear view, which is that in Britain we will do this in a pragmatic, proper way. If it is a medicine, let's prove it to be a medicine and let that proof be tested by the regulators. And that's where we stand. It's delightful to be British under this circumstance."

The regulators in question are what Dr Guy describes as the "12 good scientists and true" of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). They will rule on whether GW's dossier of trial results, submitted in March, proves the company can manufacture Sativex consistently, proves the product is safe, and proves that it really does relieve the muscle stiffness of MS patients and the pain caused by nerve damage, as Dr Guy claims. It is a critical test of the quality of GW's science, but Dr Guy sees it as just the next hurdle after a string of hurdles already jumped.

"The crucial period was five years ago, getting this programme started. That was the most important time for these patients. Somebody was listening to them and finally, at last, the cavalry was on its way. Somebody was taking them seriously, and was prepared to try to make a medicine out of this plant. That is stunning. It's so significant in so many different ways, to actually have a medicine made in response to an unmet need for patients. These other issues, like cannabis being an entirely illegal substance around the world, those were just problems we had to overcome, which we did."

Clearly Dr Guy is never one to sell himself or his company's achievements short. A doctor by training, his salesman streak developed at medical school, dealing in cars and his beloved motorbikes. He has a number of companies behind him already, mostly in the medical arena. Wearing sharp pinstripes when The Independent dropped in on GW's modest office in Mayfair, London, he is just at home in a lab coat at the company's Porton Down science park headquarters in Wiltshire, or at its top-secret cannabis greenhouse in the South of England. Invitations to that site are few and far between. The place is "like Fort Knox". Staff are vetted for convictions and routinely dope tested, and all the plants are individually labelled. "We have camera systems that can read a badge from 300 yards, and it's not fuzzy shopping centre stuff."

Dr Guy certainly wouldn't be tempted to snip off a little for himself. For the sake of his health, he has cut out almost all the vices: he is a non-smoker, a teetotaller and now coffee is out, too, since cup after cup at business meetings was making him buzz. And, no, he hasn't indulged in cannabis. Not ever.

"Even up to a few years ago I used to quite naively say there wasn't any cannabis around at medical school. With people happier to talk more freely, I now understand there probably was in the Seventies, but I didn't see it. I don't come to this with a connoisseur's understanding of cannabis."

Opinion in the City and in the scientific community is sharply divided over the prospects for GW and its products. The numbers of patients in the clinical studies have been relatively small and some of the trials did not prove what they set out to prove, although they do show statistically significant benefits, and Dr Guy insists the studies are robust.

GW did not raise any money from institutional investors for its float in 2001 when its broker Collins Stewart instead tapped wealthy individuals. But the institutions are coming on board now and GW's progress to date has helped Dr Guy overcome some of the "reputational damage" he suffered over his last venture, Ethical Holdings. Another drug company, it failed to raise vital funds through a listing in London in 1996 and had to be bailed out by the Irish drugmaker Elan and broken up.

Dr Guy is still sore at the memory, but brushes off people's doubts. "I don't lose sleep over it. I'm not a person who seeks high praise from people I don't know. We had a failed listing in London, which seems to have coloured most things in London, which is very typical of London, which looks not very much further than London. Having founded GW, from day one we have operated entirely to our plan."

If there is a serious setback for Sativex at the MHRA, he won't have done himself any favours by selling £5m of shares at the time of GW's £20m fundraising in June this year. Then, the company was still predicting the drug would be available on prescription this month and the shares were 200p compared with 177.5p at the end of last week.

None of these niggles will persist if Sativex is okayed, successfully rolled out overseas, as Dr Guy predicts, and if even a fraction of his optimism over the prospects for cannabis-based medicines proves correct.

"I think we are going to see 20 years of sensational medicines coming out of this area of research, and we are heavily involved at all stages," he says.

"You and I learnt at school that cannabis kills brain cells. The entire opposite is the case. We are highly involved in research looking at neuro-protection, we're looking at the anti-tumour effects of these materials, the anti-psychotic effects.

"I still hear people who say GW isn't a serious company. I'd line them up in front of a few of our patients, and see what our patients would say. We are not long for that judgment. Let's see how we get on."


Position: Chairman of GW Pharmaceuticals

Age: 49

Wealth: Salary and benefits from GW in the year to September 2002 were £199,000, and Dr Guy cashed in £5m of his shareholding in June 2003. His remaining stake is valued at £41.5m, putting him at number 801 on the Sunday Times Rich List

Career: Trained as a doctor at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London before moving into private sector. Set up Ethical Holdings, making morphine and hormone replacement therapy drugs, in 1985, leaving a year after it failed to list in London in 1996. Set up GW in 1998 and floated it in 2001

Interests: Real tennis, yachts, cars and archery