Cannabis legalisation and the North America patent landscape


Alec Griffiths

Cannabis legalisation and the North America patent landscape

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The patent landscape of cannabis products can provide insights into the opportunities for this sector in North American markets, says Alec Griffiths of Patent Seekers.

The legalisation of cannabis products in North America has taken two different routes: medicinal use and recreational use, both of which have had a profound effect on the patent landscape.

The use of cannabis was first legalised for medicinal use in the US state of Virginia in 1979, when legislation was passed to allow doctors to recommend cannabis for glaucoma or for the side-effects of chemotherapy. It wasn’t until the end of the 1990s that a handful of other states and Canada would follow suit.

The acceleration of medical cannabis legalisation slowed between the years 2006 and 2011, but it underwent a resurgence from 2012 onwards, with all but three US states now having made the medical use of cannabis legal in some form.

The legalisation of the recreational use of cannabis, however, has been a more recent event with the first US states passing legislation in 2012; since then, eight more US states and Canada have also legalised the drug for recreational use. With this recent surge in legalisation, the shape of the cannabis patent landscape is sure to be affected even further.

Patent filing analysis

Figure 1 shows two large peaks of activity for patent filings relating to cannabis products: one beginning in 2000–2001 and the other in 2013. These peaks could be explained by legalisation events that occurred within these years in the US and Canada, as discussed previously. Many US states legalised the use of cannabis products for medicinal purposes during 2014, which may also help explain the surge in patent applications over the last five years.

"It may be expected that patent filings will rapidly increase cross a diversified portfolio."

The decline between 2006 and 2012 may be due to market saturation, the slowing rate of legalisation across the US, and/or the limited restrictions placed on the initial laws governing medical use of cannabis products.

The apparent dip in filings in 2017/2018 is most likely explained by applications that have yet to be published and would be claiming those years as a priority. It could be expected that the number of cannabis-related filings will continue to increase in the coming years as more US states seek to legalise the recreational use of cannabis products.

The states in which any use of cannabis is illegal, or that have tight restrictions on its medical use, may also seek to legalise it and/or reduce the current restrictions on its use, further increasing the potential number of filings.

Figure 2 shows the number of publications placed in the top 20 International Patent Classifications (IPCs) over time. The classifications identified provide an insight into a diverse field, reflecting both the medical and the recreational uses of the drug. The trend in the number of publications appears to coincide with the timeline of major medicinal and recreational legalisation events.

The recent surge in the legalisation of medicinal cannabis products (2014 to the present) is reflected in the increase of patents in the A61K31 (medicinal preparations containing organic active ingredients) subclasses and in the A61K36/185 (medicinal preparations [containing material from plants]) subclass.

The emergence of patents in the A24F47 (smokers’ requisites not provided for elsewhere [electronic cigarettes]) class can likely be attributed to the recent legalisation of recreational cannabis use.

There appears to be a large growth in activity in the G01N33/94 (investigating or analysing materials [involving narcotics]) class, which could be indicative of the growing need to test for evidence of drug use now that it’s becoming more readily available.

Technology areas

Figure 3 illustrates a set of documents clustered according to their semantic proximity where a point corresponds to a patent family. The map provides a visualisation of the technology clusters prevalent within the cannabis portfolio and reveals a diverse set of interests.

There are several clusters relating to medicinal use, with pain treatment holding a dominant spot among the medical portion of the portfolio. Some smaller clusters appear to relate to more recent uses of the drug, uses that tie in with the legalisation for recreational purposes, such as beverages, food products and electronic cigarettes.

The map also highlights the developing chemical and botanical fields relating to the drug, such as transgenic plants, feedstock and cycloalkyl compounds.


This dip into the patent landscape surrounding cannabis products has revealed that the medicinal field has the biggest presence, but the industry is rapidly expanding, and the recent surge in legalisation (for both medicinal and recreational use) has allowed new avenues to open and existing ones to grow.

There is great potential for future innovation and, as companies seek to capitalise on this fast-growing market, it may be expected that patent filings will rapidly increase across a diversified portfolio, including: therapeutics, botanics, food and drink, drug testing technology and other fields that have not yet been explored.

Alec Griffiths is an IP manager at Patent Seekers and is leading the launch of the North American office based in Toronto. Patent Seekers has completed more than 16,000 searches for international patent attorneys both in private practice and in-house, and for major blue chip companies. He can be contacted at:

Patent Seekers, patent filings, cannabis, medicinal use, chemotherapy, legislation, IPCs, electronic cigarette, pain treatment, innovation, food and drink