While marijuana growers are capturing the attention of many investors right now, there are several biotechs with cannabis-focused programs that could also be worth a look. Two such biotechs are GW Pharmaceuticals PLC (NASDAQ:GWPH) and 22nd Century Group Inc. (NYSEMKT:XXII).
GW Pharmaceuticals has been the better-performing stock so far in 2018 -- but not by a wide margin. Which of these two biotech stocks is the better pick for investors looking toward the future? Here's how GW and 22nd Century Group compare.
The case for GW Pharmaceuticals
Any discussion about the merits of GW Pharmaceuticals stock has to start with Epidiolex. In June, Epidiolex made history as it became the first plant-based cannabinoid drug to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). GW Pharmaceuticals won FDA approval for Epidiolex in treating two rare forms of epilepsy -- Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS).
The biotech also received very good news for Epidiolex in September. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) gave the drug the least-restrictive classification available for a controlled substance -- Schedule V. This scheduling makes it much easier for physicians to prescribe Epidiolex.
GW Pharmaceuticals could have a blockbuster on its hands. Market research firm EvaluatePharma thinks Epidiolex could generate annual sales of around $1 billion by 2022. Goldman Sachs analyst Salveen Richter is even more optimistic, pegging peak annual sales for the drug at $2.2 billion.
While GW Pharmaceuticals launches Epidiolex in the U.S., it's also pursuing regulatory approval in Europe. The company hopes to win European approval in early 2019. In addition, the biotech is evaluating Epidiolex in clinical studies for treating rare diseases tuberous sclerosis and Rett syndrome.
But Epidiolex isn't GW's only product. The company currently markets cannabinoid drug Sativex in several countries as a treatment for multiple sclerosis spasticity. GW is conducting a late-stage study of Sativex in hopes of securing U.S. approval. It also has earlier-stage studies underway for other cannabinoids targeting treatment of epilepsy, autism spectrum disorders, glioblastoma, neonatal hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, and schizophrenia.
The case for 22nd Century Group
22nd Century Group also has research underway related to cannabis. The company developed technology to grow cannabis plants that contain no THC -- the primary psychoactive compound in the plant.
However, 22nd Century Group's primary focus is tobacco. The company has proprietary technology that enables growing of tobacco plants with very low levels of nicotine.
The FDA could deliver a nice gift to 22nd Century Group in the not-too-distant future. In March, the agency announced plans to require tobacco cigarettes sold in the U.S. to have low levels of nicotine. It's a relatively long process to implement these plans, though.
Still, the odds are that tobacco makers will have to scramble to decrease nicotine levels in cigarettes. That could make 22nd Century Group's technology a hot commodity. The company has announced that it's willing to license its very-low-nicotine (VLN) technology to any tobacco maker.
So far, no big tobacco company has struck a deal with 22nd Century Group. There are alternative methods for producing tobacco with very low levels of nicotine that companies could pursue. However, 22nd Century Group's approach did receive a plug in the FDA's advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM).
With its market cap of less than $400 million, 22nd Century Group could be set to soar once the FDA's plans are finalized.
While 22nd Century Group waits for its big break, GW Pharmaceuticals has already received a couple of them with its FDA approval of Epidiolex and favorable DEA scheduling. My view is that GW is the less risky of these two biotech stocks and therefore gets the nod over 22nd Century Group.
The biggest drawback for GW Pharmaceuticals is that its growth potential is largely priced into the stock. The biotech's market cap currently stands at $4.7 billion. Epidiolex will need to achieve sales at the upper end of projections to enable GW stock to climb much higher.