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INSIGHTS BLOG > Trends in Cannabis Patents Over Time

Trends in Cannabis Patents Over Time

Written on 08 December 2019

Ruth Fisher, PhD. by Ruth Fisher, PhD

Patent Counts by Year

I searched the USPTO patent database for all patents for which the patent abstract contained any of the following terms: cannabis, cannabinoid, marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinoid, or cannabinol. My search yielded 914 patents.

As seen in Figure 1, there were only a handful of cannabis patents each year until the late 1990s. Cannabis patent activity started increasing at a roughly constant annual rate between 2001 and 2010. Patent activity leveled off between 2010 and 2015, then accelerated through to the present.

Figure 1

1 mj patent counts

Patent Counts by Category

Category Descriptions

Based on patent descriptions, I assigned each patent to a category and subcategory. I defined the patent categories as follows:

Delivery: Methods of or compositions for delivering cannabis into the body

Detect: Methods of detecting cannabinoids in products samples or in people

Extract: Methods of extracting cannabinoids from plant matter

Grow: Methods of cultivating cannabis plants

Package: Methods of packaging cannabis products

Plant: Plant cultivars

Pre-Plant: Plant genomics

Process: Methods of processing cannabis, excluding extraction of cannabinoids from plant matter

Receptor: Patents addressing cannabinoid receptors: CB1, CB2, agonist, antagonist, ligand

Smoke: Devices and formulations for smoking cannabis

Storage: Methods and devices for storing cannabis products

Synthesis: Methods of synthesizing cannabinoids

Terpene: Products and methods involving cannabis terpenes

Track: Software for tracking cannabis cultivation, sales, usage, or trading

Treatment: Cannabis compositions for the treatment of specific conditions

Patent Activity by Category

Figure 2 displays total counts by cannabis patent category and subcategory.

Figure 2

2 patents category

High Patent Activity

The most cannabis patent activity involved methods for activating cannabinoid receptors. Substantial patent activity involved methods for delivering cannabis into the body, specifically, in oral or food/beverage form and topically through the skin. There was also substantial patent activity in the area of cannabis compositions for treating specific conditions or diseases.

Moderate Patent Activity

Moderate patent activity occurred in the area of synthesizing cannabinoid or cannamimetic compounds. Moderate patent activity also occurred in the area of methods for detecting cannabis in product samples or in bodily fluids. Finally, there was moderate patent activity in the area of cannabis extraction and other forms of cannabis processing.

Trends in Categories over Time

The most interesting part of the analysis was seeing how activity in different categories of inventions has evolved over time.

From the USPTO database, I pulled in patent applications using the same keywords search method I used for extracting issued patents relating to cannabis. I used a relatively crude method to match applications to issued patents and removed those applications from my dataset. I assumed that patent applications with unmatched issued patents dating through 2014 were never issued. I categorized patent applications for 2015 – 2019 using the same categories described above that I used for patents. I then isolated unmatched patent applications for 2017, 2018, and 2019 and assumed those would be prime candidates for patients issued over the next two years. My search yielded 430 patent applications submitted in 2017 – 2019.

What I have, then, is a database of 914 issued patents for 1940 through the present (December 6, 2019), and a database of 430 new patent applications for 2017 through the present (3 years of activity).

Annual patent and application counts by category are presented in Figure 3.

Figure 3

3 patents apps year

As the figure shows, patents involving activation of cannabinoid receptors have peaked and are on the decline. More recently, the majority of activity has focused on (i) methods of delivering cannabis into the body, (ii) cannabis compositions for treating specific conditions, and (iii) methods for processing and extraction cannabis.

Cannabis Technologies Missing from the Patent Database

What I found particularly interesting about cannabis patents are all the technologies I’ve seen and read about that are not included in the patent or application databases. Granted, most of these technologies are software- (and perhaps also hardware-) based, which are more difficult to patent.

Technologies I’m familiar with that are absent from the patent database include, for example:

  • Cultivation management systems: sensor-based systems to track and manage lighting, water, and nutrients.
  • Distribution and dispensary management systems: systems for inventory management, point-of-sale operations, customer management, and compliance.
  • Delivery systems: solutions to manage B2B and B2C deliveries of cannabis products.
  • Tracking systems: tracking of patient symptoms and matching cannabis products to patients.
  • Plant genomics: systems to analyze and track plant genomics and profiles of compounds.
  • Human genomics: systems to analyze human genomics and match cannabis products to patients.