Legalization sparks boom in field of marijuana research

Marijuana research was once stigmatized field in Canada

Dr. Mark Ware has devoted the past 20 years of his career to studying marijuana, and he can remember some “dark, lean” periods when he had to fight for meagre funding.

“There were times when I was told you couldn’t even use ‘cannabis’ and ‘research’ in the same sentence,” he recalled.

Now, Ware is the chief medical officer of one of Canada’s largest pot companies, Canopy Growth Corp., which is conducting millions of dollars worth of research on the use of cannabis to treat conditions including anxiety, insomnia and pain.

READ MORE: Privacy watchdog says legal cannabis buyers should use cash, not credit

Legalization has sparked a boom in pot research, generating funding, jobs and the need for laboratory space. In the past, companies had little incentive to study an illicit substance, now they’re racing to create new products and prove their benefits.

Ware, also an associate professor of family medicine and anaesthesia at McGill University, said there have been brief funding windows over the years. When Canada legalized medical marijuana in the early 2000s, there was a flurry of interest, he said.

He said the current boom started in 2014 after the former Conservative government brought in legislation that established a commercial industry for medical marijuana. Companies have also been anticipating the legalization of recreational weed since the Liberal government came to power in 2015.

Canada is now poised to become a research leader, he said, after it became the first G7 nation to legalize recreational cannabis on Oct. 17. Pot companies are rapidly expanding and have a “tremendous need” for qualified staff, including scientists and researchers, he said.

The federal government is investing in marijuana research too. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research announced $1.4 million in funding for 14 pot-related projects last January, and it helped launch a $3-million grant opportunity in July.

“What, I think, really is changing is the number of people who are now ready to apply for those funds and are interested in doing this research,” Ware said.

“That’s not so much a factor of regulation or funding. It’s actually, I think, the stigma around cannabis has changed, and people are beginning to see that there is a credible reason for looking at medical cannabis seriously.”

Vancouver’s new mayor, Kennedy Stewart, is paying attention. He said the research and development potential of marijuana is “enormous” and he wants to establish the city as a hub for that part of the industry.

“The stock market’s gone crazy with all these new companies and what they want to do is develop new products,” Stewart said in an interview in November, shortly after being elected.

“The signal I want to send is that this is the place to bring your R&D money. To turn it from hippies on street corners to people in lab coats is really the image I would like to see.”

The University of British Columbia has already launched a new professorship to study the potential of marijuana to treat opioid addiction. The school selected epidemiologist M-J Milloy to be the Canopy Growth professor of cannabis science.

Canopy contributed $2.5 million, while the province paid $500,000 to UBC and the BC Centre on Substance Use for the position.

Prohibition not only limited interest in research over the years — it also created logistical headaches for those who wanted to study the drug. Researchers had to apply for an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which was sometimes difficult to get.

New regulations now require scientists to obtain a licence to conduct testing or research on cannabis.

READ MORE: 2 Vancouver businesses open city’s first legal pot shops

Thomas Kerr, a research scientist with the BC Centre on Substance Use, argued that cultural forces have also restricted research, including an “overwhelming focus” on the negative aspects of cannabis rather than the benefits.

“So what we have is a history of research that’s very pathologizing and unbalanced,” he said. “The hope is through legalization and increased access to medicinal cannabis, we can begin to look at some of the other side of the coin.”

Kerr said there is a lack of rigorous research on the effects of cannabis on adolescent cognitive development. Researchers also need to continue to explore whether there’s a role for cannabis in reducing opioid overdose deaths, he said.

Marijuana companies have recently stepped up to fund research and do their own studies, which is a good thing as long as industry interests don’t compromise quality, Kerr noted.

“We just need to make sure that there are appropriate safeguards in place, that researchers have sufficient independence and are able to conduct their research and produce results — including those that may not be favourable to industry.”

Laura Kane, The Canadian Press

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