With the date of marijuana legalization fast approaching—October 17, 2018—it seems that the government has jolted awake and realized that more research on the plant needs to be done.
Earlier in the year, MP Bill Blair announced the government would invest $1.4 million into studying the effects of legalizing recreational marijuana on public health. The Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) is giving $100,000 to 14 separate research projects, including ones on exposure to second-hand marijuana smoke and the effects of cannabis use during pregnancy.
Acknowledging the lack of high-quality research to date, Blair said, “Our government is prepared to invest to change this reality. We are committed to strengthening the evidence base with regard to the health benefits and the risks of cannabis use.”
Roadblocks to Cannabis Research Still Up
Such announcements have received a lukewarm response from the Canadian medical and research community. For some, the research push is too little, too late—just a drop in a bucket for a legalized cannabis industry projected to grow to $5 or $6 billion a year.
A more pressing issue is that, despite the government loosening its grip on access to marijuana, it’s no easier to get permission for cannabis research. To conduct a study, researchers still must apply for an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which is notoriously difficult to get.
A June 2017 letter from research scientists to the Canadian government states:
“Under prohibition, cannabis research has been limited by the criminalization and stigmatization of cannabis use, an overemphasis on pathologizing cannabis use, and by restricted access to cannabis for human research. As a result, substantial knowledge gaps remain related to the potential consequences of legalized cannabis use.”
That said, there are signs that the government may ease its restrictions around marijuana research. Nina Cluny, a pharmacologist at the CIHR, writes in an email to The Scientist:
“[Legalization] offers a new opportunity to address gaps in our knowledge, such as the effects of cannabis use on brain development, mental health, or other health outcomes, and it will broaden our knowledge of the potential benefits of cannabis for conditions such as pain…It could also allow scientists to do much larger clinical studies.”
Is Research Too Focused on Marijuana’s Potential Downsides?
Research and medical professionals point out that studies to date have been too narrowly focused on the potential health harms of cannabis. While we must know more about potential ill effects, such as how marijuana affects developing brains, there’s a huge opportunity for studies into its potential health benefits.
Lynda Balneaves, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba’s college of nursing in the Rady faculty of health sciences, points out, “We have a gap in knowledge about using the whole plant in some form to treat illness and relieve symptoms and side effects.”
She adds that knowledge from research is essential to helping health practitioners give the best advice to patients. She continues, “Right now we don’t understand what strains are appropriate, what dosage is appropriate, what type is best—vaporization, smoking or an edible. We need to do much more research on it.”
New Cannabis Research Underway
With all the cautions noted above, there’s still a sense that a groundswell of research on the medical uses of marijuana is coming.
On the West Coast, the University of British Columbia announced in July that it’s creating Canada’s first professorship of cannabis science to look at how medical marijuana research could play a part in addressing the opioid crisis, as well as other addictive disorders.
Using a combination of public and private funds, the “professorship will investigate the potential use of cannabinoids as an immediate treatment for opioid addiction and as potential opioid substitutes in treating acute and chronic pain.”
To help fill in the gaps, the CIHR has recently announced new funding opportunities for research areas that include:
- prevention, harm reduction and treatment of problematic cannabis use
- potency and product safety
- social determinants to health
- mental health
- other drug and substance use
- pain management
About 24 projects will be funded by $3 million worth of grants.
A Public-Private Marijuana Research Partnership
In Fredericton, New Brunswick, the University of New Brunswick and nearby St. Thomas University announced in 2017, that they’re creating a cannabis research mini-cluster. Each university will fill a new research chair to study the biomedical and social aspects of cannabis. The New Brunswick Health Research Foundation is providing $500,000 over five years for each chair, with matching funds from private sector partners.
Says the province’s Health Minister Victor Boudreau, “To have this type of research done, I think is going to provide benefits to the medical community to understand when it (cannabis) works and when it doesn't and when it's best to be prescribed.”
With cannabis legalization, and realization of the money and health issues at stake, more and more private and public funds will be earmarked for research into the medical uses of marijuana. The hope is that this will give us a clearer of view of cannabis’s validity as a medical treatment for a wide range of health issues.