Where there’s profit to be made, there’s corporate greed. And the weed industry, which is inching toward legalization throughout the United States, is no exception.

The market for legal weed is projected to hit $31.4 billion by 2021, according to a recent report from the Brightfield Group, a research firm focused on cannabis. Naturally, alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical companies are investing heavily in the industry.

Constellation Brands, best known as the parent company of Corona and holder of the third-highest market share of any beer supplier in the world, has invested nearly $4 billion in Canopy Growth Corp., an Ontario-based cannabis company. Some worry that Monsanto will eventually develop genetically modified marijuana — a prospect that seems reasonable even as the company has issued denial after denial.

The blockchain won’t solve all the problems the cannabis industry will face, but it’s certainly a start.

These companies could look to patents as one tool to carve out their space in the industry. Different weed strains have different effects on people, so you could think of them as separate brands just waiting to be developed and monetized. The concern is that corporations might edge in on territory that’s been staked out by someone else. Since the cannabis industry has been criminalized by the government in the past, patents on existing plants and products are not nearly as well-defined as those in other industries. The Constellations or Monsantos of the world could look to claim cannabis strains that have existed for years because they lack patent protection.

In such a turbulent marketplace, one emerging technology — either a fad or the harbinger of a “new internet,” depending on who you ask — could help smaller growers defend themselves against conglomerates. The blockchain won’t solve all the problems the cannabis industry will face, but it’s certainly a start.


It costs a lot to defend patent infringement — you could get into the millions pretty quickly,” Craig Nard, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University who has written about cannabis and patent law, explains.

He believes there is a legitimate fear in the burgeoning weed industry that large agricultural companies like Monsanto will aggressively enter the space in the near future. He says there’s no reason to believe it won’t happen.

But you can’t just grow a funky looking sativa, slap a copyright sticker on it, and call it a day.

“So what if I’m a smaller player, a grower who just wants to grow and sell locally, and I don’t have huge commercial ambitions?” he says. “All of a sudden, I get a cease and desist letter from a Dupont or Monsanto, what do I do with that?”

Behemoth companies can pay for fleets of lawyers or otherwise bury challengers. Patents and copyrights provide a way for smaller businesses to protect their products. But you can’t just grow a funky looking sativa, slap a copyright sticker on it, and call it a day.

Enter Medicinal Genomics, one company offering a way for cannabis growers to protect themselves in anticipation of future patent litigation. The company offers cannabis genetic sequencing and “point-of-grow” testing technology for weed cultivators, meaning it can give you a breakdown of the genetic makeup of your plant, along with other information.

Once Medicinal Genomics has sequences a strain, it puts the information in a file, attaches a timestamp to it, and puts it on the blockchain — essentially an “online ledger” that allows data to be verified. Doing so provides more concrete evidence of what a product actually is than, say, a photo or post on a website.

“Not everyone is really competent in the names of these clones being handed around or the seeds being handed around,” says Kevin McKernan, the founder of Medicinal Genomics and a former researcher on the Human Genome Project.

DNA sequencing of a plant’s genomes “can be used for defensive intellectual property purposes, where you can get a sequence of a plant,” he continues. “We end up registering the time at which that sequence existed by hashing it into a blockchain like bitcoin.”

If the Monsanto of weed sends you a cease and desist order, you’d have some ammunition to shoot back with.

This is important because, according to McKernan, there is a steady stream of patents in the pipeline, but they’re coming from a limited number of people. McKernan believes others will try to claim strains that have existed for a while because the U.S. doesn’t have a good database of legally confirmed, existing cannabis strains.

The blockchain could provide the framework for such a database. It’s a useful technology in this respect because an individual can’t change it. Once a sequence file of the plant’s genetic makeup is registered with the blockchain, it would take a consensus of blockchain users throughout the world to alter it. The technology is often referred to as an immutable ledger, which basically means a record that cannot be changed.

“It’s a cheap way to get something notarized, and then at least your stuff is public,” McKernan says. “If something comes up later, you can demonstrate that, ‘Hey, I’ve got first-use exemption because I had this timestamp showing that I had this strain on April 20th, and therefore it predates your patent.’”

While a company could attempt to torpedo your new strain before you’re able to file a patent, the blockchain would at least give you timestamped evidence saying exactly what your plant is, and it would be linked to a genetic profile. If the Monsanto of weed sends you a cease and desist order, you’d have some ammunition to shoot back with. And rather than the thousands of dollars patent litigation could cost, Medicinal Genomics wants to do this all for $600.

Kevin Fortin, a patent attorney at Hoban Law Group who has extensive experience with both blockchain and cannabis, says the approach could help someone make a case, although it can’t grant the legal protection of an official patent.

“Having an indelible ledger such as blockchain can demonstrate prior use of a particular genetic sequence of marijuana, for example,” says Fortin. “From a defensive standpoint, that means what you’re essentially doing is showing the genetic composition of a particular strain and publishing it… though it doesn’t provide the exclusive rights a patent would.”


Weed is a tricky thing. The U.S. lacks institutional knowledge about what kinds of cannabis are already out there; while most plants have a certain way of growing within an environment — or can’t even survive in some settings — weed has proven especially resolute and adaptable. Similar genetic strains can have very different end results in growth and quality based on the environment they’re in.

So, how can one determine a truly original strain of weed?

The patent office may well have to design a whole new paradigm to address the weed industry.

“Right now the patent office is fighting a losing battle,” says Reggie Gaudino, chief science officer and director of intellectual property at Steep Hill, a cannabis science and technology company.

Gaudino thinks that not having a prior repository of cannabis knowledge coupled with the uniqueness of the plant itself means the patent office may well have to design a whole new paradigm to address the weed industry.

“There is no prior art, there are no well documented strains, there is nothing for them to rely on in the public domain, which is where they are limited to,” he explains.

Until the patent office develops a new framework, Gaudino thinks the blockchain won’t provide a great defense against infringement because there’s little understanding of the product to begin with.

Meanwhile, many of the people with deep-rooted knowledge of weed are behind bars. The federal government classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug, putting it in the same category as heroin. People who are incarcerated for growing marijuana are being left out of this new economy.

“We need those people in the industry because they’re the people that actually know how to grow this thing,” says McKernan. “The knowledge banks they have are extraordinarily difficult to replicate, as opposed to people who are now marching into the industry being fresh and new to this.”

Even as the kinks are left unresolved, lawsuits are already starting to happen. In late July, United Cannabis Corp., a biotechnology company in Golden, Colorado, sued Pure Hemp Collective for patent infringement, alleging that Pure Hemp infringed on a “liquid cannabinoid formulation, wherein at least 95 percent of the total cannabinoids is cannabidiol (CBD).”

United Cannabis’s suit alleges that the company ran lab tests on a bottled Vina Bell tincture and discovered there was a case for infringement. People in the industry are watching the suit closely as it will help lay the groundwork for future patent battles.

But for now, services like those Medicinal Genomics offers are one incremental solution, an island in the midst of the cannabis industry’s rolling wave.