of supplemental raw data on cognitive function, lung function, biochem-
istry and hematology that could be valuable to researchers or health-care
professionals in addressing patient concerns about possible side-effects
of the drug. “What I’m hoping is that anyone who is serious about med-
ical cannabis and its effects should be familiar with the contents of that
paper,” says Dr. Ware. “There’s so much there that people can dive into.”
Dr. Ware was raised in Jamaica, where he saw the potential health
benefits of cannabis while working as a young doctor in a sickle cell clinic
in 1998. One patient, in his late 70s, appeared relatively pain-free com-
pared with other patients with the disease. Dr. Ware says the man, a Ras-
tafari follower, told him: “You must study the herb, Doc.” After that, Dr.
Ware researched all he could about the potential medicinal benefits of
cannabis, concluding that “this needs clinical trials.”
When the Liberal government under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien
announced in 1999 that it would fund medical-related marijuana stud-
ies, Dr. Ware moved to Canada. Since then, court rulings and government
anti-drug policies have governed the pace of research progress.
History of medical cannabis in Canada
Access to cannabis for medical use was granted in 2001 under the Medical Marihuana Access Program (the government program uses a variant spelling for marijuana). The program’s regulatory framework gave
approved users limited access to the illegal substance, allowing them or
their designated supplier to grow it for personal use or buy it from Health
Canada’s single supplier.
Cannabis for medical use is grown according to standardized regulations imposed by Health Canada. While different varieties are approved,
they all must meet quality control requirements, including limits on the
level of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the plant’s naturally occurring
Over the years, several court rulings improved patient access and the
right to medicinal cannabis, effectively thwarting the anti-drug policies
of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. In 2014, the Harper government replaced the existing regulatory framework, which allowed individual licensed growers to supply medical marijuana, with a new system
in which only large licensed companies can produce it, and only in the
dried plant form. In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada expanded the
definition of cannabis for medical use to include oils, tea and brownies.
Besides treating pain from arthritis, cannabis is now being used to
relieve such symptoms as severe nausea, vomiting, chronic pain and loss of
appetite in cancer patients who don’t respond to conventional treatments.
The drug is also treating a variety of other medical complaints, including
neuropathic pain that does not respond to common painkillers; muscle
spasms linked to multiple sclerosis; weight loss in HIV and cancer patients;
palliative or end-of-life care; post-traumatic stress disorder; and seizures.
Ultimately it is up to the physician to decide whether cannabis is appropri-
ate to treat a medical condition, underlining the need for more research.
In 2011, two Canadian researchers – Jon Page, founder and president
of Anandia Labs and an adjunct botany professor at the University of Brit-
ish Columbia, and Tim Hughes, professor in the Banting and Best Depart-
ment of Medical Research at the University of Toronto – completed the
genetic sequencing of the Purple Kush variety of marijuana. The genome
mapping is now available online to researchers, allowing them to study
the plant without having it in a lab and thus avoiding having to obtain the
security clearance and government permits required for such research. Dr.
Page says he isn’t aware of any growth chambers for cannabis at a Cana-
dian university, likely because cannabis and its molecules are substances
controlled by Health Canada.
Moreover, researchers who study controlled substances face limits on
the size of the lab and who has access to it, which wouldn’t mesh well with
most universities’ existing labs and facilities. “University agricultural fac-
ulties or botany departments often have greenhouses or growth chambers
where they’re growing corn, canola, grapes,” says Dr. Page. “It’s very hard
to lock up one of those chambers so you can grow cannabis in it.”
When approached by young researchers who are eager to begin a career studying the plant, Dr. Page says he warns them about the lengthy
time needed to get approvals. “The file crosses everyone’s desk,” he says.
“They have to talk about every issue, like ‘Were the RCMP notified? Is
campus security aware?’” Despite these hurdles, more universities are recognizing the value of cannabis research. With the prospect of the legalization of marijuana, Dr. Page predicts that the red tape governing research
on cannabis for medical purposes will also be relaxed.
Lately, some of the funders of cannabis researchers are neither govern-
ment nor charitable foundations, but rather companies that produce
medical marijuana. This past fall, M-J Milloy received $1-million from
National Green Biomed Ltd., a prospective grower of medical cannabis, to
research the drug’s effects on HIV/AIDS patients. Dr. Milloy, an assistant
professor in the AIDS division of UBC’s department of medicine, says NG
“It is not like the traditional
way that medicines have been
brought to market with all of the
rigour of clinical trials.”