That Time Sony’s CEO Wanted to Launch a Weed Tech Startup

“What do the tobacco companies do when they want to put a new additive in?”

Jordan Pearson

Jordan Pearson

​Image: Flickr/​Brett Levin

​Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton wanted to develop a new chemical additive to marijuana that would be detectable in urine or blood during a roadside test for impaired driving, leaked Sony emails from February of 2014 reveal.

"Where can I call you?" Lynton wrote to Richard Friesen, a chemist at Columbia University. "I have an interesting business opportunity to discuss. In advance please read today's article on driving under the influence of marijuana in the [New York Times]."

As the Times article noted, developing a DUI test for marijuana is difficult, as traces of marijuana compounds persist in the body for far longer than alcohol, making it difficult to pinpoint when someone smoked last. So why doesn't your pot have an additional chemical marker just for DUI tests in it, as Lynton proposed? The idea was a bit of a non-starter, according to Marilyn Huestis, senior investigator for the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

"I'm not sure why they were looking for a marker rather than measuring the drug itself," Huestis told me. "It doesn't make much sense to me. Plus, cannabis is a natural product, and adding something in after the fact—I don't see the advantage of that. We have many ways of measuring the cannabinoids [chemical byproducts of cannabis ingestion] themselves."

The problem with Lynton's approach, Huestis said, that marijuana's active ingredient, THC, stays detectible in users for a very long time, sometimes for weeks. This is because THC is lipophilic, meaning it stores itself in the body's fat tissue. Detecting a chemical additive wouldn't necessarily indicate current THC levels, and THC levels in turn don't necessarily indicate that you're high at the moment. It's better to try and detect other naturally-occurring cannabinoids that might indicate recent smoking.

"I think the whole idea has a lot of holes in it," Huestis said.

Lynton and Friesen weren't alone in this plan, either. Friesen enlisted Mark Murcko, former chief technology officer for Vertex Pharmaceuticals, to do a little research. In the meantime, Lynton looped in Michael Moritz, a partner at venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, and other academics including Harrison Alter at the Berkeley School of Public Health. Friesen, Lynton, and Alter were all stoked on the project.

"I would be happy to put up the initial $200k," Lynton wrote in an email to Friesner. And, pasting a line copied from an email sent by Alter, he added, "The testing required to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of a new compound could be prohibitive. But maybe not. What do the tobacco companies do when they want to put a new additive in?"

Eventually, the idea was put to rest by a report from Murcko that reiterated many of Huestis's issues with the project. "My conclusion is that there is no value in putting an additive into the pot and then looking for that in the bloodstream," Murcko wrote. "There would be no clear way to correlate this with THC, and no way to correlate THC with impairment."

And so ended the saga of that time Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton had an idea for a pot startup.