June 22, 2003
If Geoffrey Guy has his way, a new cannabis-based drug will shortly be over the last regulatory hurdle and on chemists' shelves. And if all goes to plan, he and his company, GW Pharmaceuticals, will make a mint. Sophie Barker meets him
"Do you mind if I take a spot of insulin? My sugars are racing a bit." Geoffrey Guy, the 48-year-old executive chairman of Britain's only marijuana medicine group, whips out a big, fat syringe, lifts up his shirt and injects himself in the tummy.
This recently diagnosed diabetic has just presented Aim-listed GW Pharmaceuticals interim results to the City (a £7.3m pre-tax loss) and he's found it all a bit much. "It's difficult on days when you are quite charged. You are sitting down so there's nothing to dissipate the adrenaline. I'm quite a control fanatic on these issues."
For someone so blase about injecting himself in front of a stranger, he is remarkably squeamish when it comes to the recreational use of cannabis. This is a plant he hopes to turn into marketable medicines for multiple sclerosis, cancer and neuropathic pain. His first treatment, Sativex for MS sufferers, is awaiting regulatory approval before hitting pharmacists' shelves by the end of this year (he hopes).
And yet Guy, a rotund, old-school gent with cut-glass vowels, doesn't like to be dragged into the recreational drugs debate and claims never to have been near a joint in his life. "The first [cannabis] plant I saw was the first we grew in our greenhouse. It seems odd, really. I was a medical student in the 70s and I thought everyone just went to the bar." (Terrible gout has since caused him to give up booze.)
His Home Office licence entitles him to grow enough dope to keep the Glastonbury Festival high all summer. Since he and his long-time colleague Brian Whittle set up GW with "hundreds of thousands" of their own cash in 1998, 250,000 plants have sprouted from carefully chosen compost in top-secret greenhouses somewhere in southern England.
My mind boggles at the thought of acres of green, leafy and perfectly legal cannabis. He brings me back to earth: "It sounds exceedingly poetic. But it's not a field and it's not a farm. It's really quite a shock to pharmaceutical colleagues, the police or government officials when they come and see it. What we have is computer-controlled glasshouses with row upon row of standardised plants. Every single batch is numbered."
Security guards patrol the site 24 hours a day, there are infra-red televisions inside and outside the greenhouses and strict rules governing everything down to the opening and shutting of doors. Staff, most of whom are over 40, are vetted by the police and submitted to regular "sample" tests (he won't tell me what kind, but I think I get the message).
So far, so scientific, but isn't this all an elaborate way to distract
MS patients with a high rather than medicine? "We are not seeking the buzz
or the gratification of intoxification. In fact, our patients intensely
dislike any intoxification. They don't want to swap one level of incapacity
for another. The key feature of them getting better is they can do more:
they can pick up the grandchild, go to the shops."
All of which is music to the ears of a Government keen to soften its prohibition on cannabis without outraging Middle England. So enamoured is the Home Office of Guy and his weed that some critics even claim it may pressurise the independent Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency into granting Sativex the crucial licence GW needs before doctors can prescribe it.
Alan Macfarlane, the head of the Home Office drugs inspectorate, has clearly fallen under Guy's spell. "Cannabis has been a political thorn in the side of the Home Office for some years and Geoffrey Guy is the only person to have seized the nettle of developing cannabis-based medicine for MS sufferers. I can see cannabis becoming like the opium poppy, which has 20-odd medicines derived from it. If I'd been allowed to invest half my pension in GW, I would have!" he gushes.
He is not the only one to have seen the big flashing dollar sign above Guy's head. Last month, Bayer, the German drugs giant, agreed to pay GW £25m for the exclusive UK rights to Sativex. Guy is confident he will sign similar deals in Europe and the Commonwealth, pushing GW into the black by the end of next year.
If he is right, he could spend his 50s indulging his passions for cars, yachts and real tennis: his 26 per cent chunk of the equity is already worth about £60m. Although he has not sold a single share since starting GW, this trained obstetrician who "didn't come from a privileged background" is not averse to making a quick buck.
It was share sales in previous pharma start-ups, Ethical Holdings and Phytopharm, which helped fund GW Pharmaceuticals. One disgruntled ex-employee from those days remembers Guy as "autocratic and mercurial, like a sentimental dictator, like Mussolini. He kept acquiring things. He's charismatic, he likes power and being the centre of attention and his real motivation is to make money."
The man himself, who defies corporate governance best practice by combining the roles of chairman and chief executive, claims to be equally driven by curing patients as he is by cash. "I am a full-time medical student with a giant-sized chemistry set. For me to carry out my art, we have to make a profit. At heart, I am a physician: I like my medicine and my science.
But to do it the way I want to, which is slightly different from the way other people do it, I've had to create my own environment." It's time for Guy to move on to meetings with institutional shareholders, and his minders are getting twitchy. I ask him why, if the business case for medicinal cannabis is so clear, the pharmaceutical big boys haven't gone for it.
"The difference is someone who has a bit of vision. Pharmaceutical companies are not a hot bed of vision. Plant medicine is not the norm in the UK. Lots of rather conservative boards of directors don't want to have to worry about the word 'marijuana'. And there was no discernible path ahead for the in-house lawyers to check." Vision or not, he has jumped on the cannabis bandwagon at a time when both investors and politicians seem intoxicated by the hype surrounding medicinal marijuana.
Even "half of Dorset, where I live" has bought into the hype by investing in his business - "a great responsibility: you don't go outdoors if the shares have gone down!" So Guy has no time for those who claim the company is just an exotic, but rather flimsy, idea which the City has fallen for? Having remained calm and collected for most of our interview, Guy suddenly sees red.
"Three years ago I would have tolerated that comment. Now, that is an unbelievable view. We have published the results of a number of clinical trials. The patients are clearly, clearly getting benefits. Cannabis is an extremely safe substance in terms of toxicity. You simply, probably can't find a dose that could kill a human. I think what you are quoting is total and absolute nonsense."
He stops and thinks, regains his composure, and adds: "I hope that wasn't
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