Canada’s legalization of recreational cannabis has caused a lot of excitement, both at home and abroad. As the first G7 country to legalize adult use of the plant, we suddenly find ourselves at the forefront of everything and anything cannabis related. And this includes, potentially, scientific marijuana research.
Research into cannabis has long been held back because of “Reefer Madness” fears of marijuana being dangerous or a gateway drug. These fears, which were rarely backed up by any actual evidence, meant that scientists had trouble getting approval or funding for cannabis studies.
With cannabis now legal, many researchers hope that Canada will see a renaissance of scientific research into this once-demonized plant. This hope is understandable as the limited research we already have shows that cannabis offers relief for folks suffering from a number of health conditions such as:
But some scientists say that the euphoria over legalization is hiding a rather unpleasant reality: Cannabis research could continue to remain just as riddled with challenges thanks to Canada’s bureaucratic restrictions.
The Promise of Cannabis Research
Before we get into why cannabis research may not necessarily be getting the boost expected post-legalization, let’s first look into why cannabis research is so important.
Simply put, cannabis is a complicated plant. It contains 115 active ingredients, whereas most psychoactive substances only contain one or two. Not only that, but each marijuana plant varies in terms of the type and quantity of active ingredients it contains.
Right now, the two most heavily researched active ingredients in marijuana are:
We know quite a bit about THC, because it’s the compound in marijuana that causes us to feel high. There are, however, potential medical uses for THC, such as a treatment for those suffering from PTSD.
Meanwhile, people already use CBD to help treat a number of ailments like:
More research needs to be done not only on THC and CBD, but specifically on cannabis’s other 113 active ingredients. We know that cannabis is effective at treating many health symptoms. But there’s still a lot we don’t know, including cannabis’s affect on brain development and mental health.
Even potential risks of cannabis use, such as how THC may influence the development of the brain in fetuses, aren’t well understood because of strict restrictions in place on research. Now that cannabis is legal and widely available, it’s important that science and the general public have a greater understanding of what the benefits and even the drawbacks of cannabis may be.
What Legalization Means for Cannabis Research
For the most part, legalization will be a plus for cannabis research. By simply legalizing recreational cannabis use, much of the stigma concerning the plant has largely dissipated. This stigma played a huge role in holding back research.
Governments, after all, weren’t eager to fund research that could potentially conclude they were arresting and jailing people for taking a product that may actually be relatively safe. Now, at least, there’s no need to worry about such hypocrisy.
Also, legalization means there’s urgent public interest in understanding how cannabis affects the body. Just as research into alcohol is necessary for setting appropriate laws regarding impaired driving and alcohol sales, we also need research into cannabis, so we can create sensible laws around marijuana use.
But it would be a mistake to think that recreational cannabis legalization means that the barriers to scientific research have come down, too. Mohammad-Reza Ghovanloo, a Ph.D. candidate at Simon Fraser University and a research fellow at Xenon Pharmaceuticals who studies the medicinal benefits of marijuana, recently talked to The Province. He said the bureaucratic hurdles that researchers face when trying to conduct research into marijuana remain largely the same despite legalization.
As Ghovanloo points out, “Under the new system, cannabis researchers are required to apply for a licence under the Cannabis Tracking and Licensing System, which already warns of several months for processing.” Those delays can be even longer if researchers are trying to import cannabinoids from outside of Canada.
Such delays are a shame, because there’s still so much about cannabis that we don’t understand. Research has given us a glimpse into the potential benefits of THC and CBD, but we know hardly anything about the benefits of cannabis’s other ingredients.
As Ghovanloo says, “If there are therapeutic gems hidden in cannabis that can help the quality of life in some patients, we should consider researching all of them.”
We absolutely should, and the sooner we do that, the better. Legalization has removed a lot of the stigma surrounding cannabis research, but it hasn’t removed the bureaucratic barriers. Once those come down, we may finally begin to better fully understand what health benefits cannabis can offer us.
Photo credit: Louis Reed