Biomed is “as committed as we are in trying to build an evidence base for
cannabis and trying to figure out what risks and benefits there might be
for HIV, for arthritis, for all sorts of medical conditions.”
The company offered to fund Dr. Milloy’s research after he conducted
an observational study (with funding from the U.S. National Institutes of
Health) in which he tried to replicate an animal study that had shown
monkeys given a cannabinoid before and after being infected with HIV
had significantly lower viral loads and less inflammation. In his study,
Dr. Milloy used medical data collected on heroin and cocaine drug users
in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and found that marijuana users who
subsequently developed an HIV infection had less inflammation and just
half the viral loads of HIV/AIDS patients who had not smoked marijuana
before the infection. “This is the first time we’ve found a direct impact of
marijuana on the disease process itself,” he says.
At the University of Calgary, Matthew Hill is exploring the neurological effect of endocannabinoids on reducing stress. The assistant professor
at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute sees growing international research interest in the potential of cannabis to address chronic pain, including inflammatory conditions, and post-traumatic stress disorder. “If you’re going to
hedge your bets on a research program … I would say those conditions are
front-runners,” says Dr. Hill.
Tweed Inc., a licensed producer of medical marijuana in Smiths Falls,
Ont., is funding academic and industry-led studies, in addition to doing
in-house research. Tweed president Mark Zekulin says the company’s
own research team is “complemented by projects we’re exploring with
academic partners, which are still defined by ‘what do we need to learn?
What do we need to know?’ but are more ambitious, [as in] how to im-
prove the yield of a plant by looking into its genetics.”
Despite the interest in research by corporate partners, hurdles persist.
Cannabis is a controlled substance – both the plant and its molecules – so
researchers must receive approval from Health Canada to use it in re-
search. According to Health Canada, it has issued 34 licences under the
Narcotic Control Regulations to conduct “regulated activities,” which in-
clude research with cannabis. It has also issued six exemptions under the
Controlled Drugs and Substances Act specifically for research or clinical
trials with cannabis. The department says it aims to complete the paper-
work in 180 days, but researchers say sometimes it can take a year to get a
licence. Once approved, researchers must establish secure labs, with video
surveillance, security patrols and restricted access.
Another brake on research momentum is that the federal research
granting agencies have not made medical cannabis a research priority.
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research said in an email that the
agency “does not currently have funding opportunities that are targeted
toward marijuana,” a position echoed in an email by a spokesperson for
the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.
Dr. Page, the B.C. scientist and entrepreneur, would like to see a group
of universities establish a multidisciplinary centre of research excellence
to push ahead on cannabis research in Canada. That approach, he says,
would address such issues as how to grow the plant on a university campus, how to safely store restricted materials and how to organize the various stages of research, including clinical use. Plant biologists, chemists
and pharmacologists would be able to study different strains of cannabis
to speed up clinical trials.
Kate Lee, vice-president of research for the Arthritis Society, similarly
recommends a structured response: “The best way to remove [roadblocks]
would be to have some kind of targeted program on medical cannabis.”
Another impediment to developing a concerted research agenda on cannabis, she says, is “the giggle factor” because of the widespread image of
cannabis as a drug for getting high.
With a growing number of licensed medical producers – 26 to date
with 389 applications under review – the legitimate business and research
sides of medicinal uses of cannabis are gaining traction. This past fall,
Kwantlen Polytechnic University offered a 16-week online course – Introduction to Professional Management of Medical Marijuana for Medical
Purposes in Canada – that quickly became oversubscribed, prompting
a second class. The course, offered through Kwantlen’s continuing and
professional studies department, has four modules – on horticulture, regulation, marketing and sales – and information on how to run research
and clinical trials. The course is viewed by prospective students as preparation to apply for a production licence. The university invited Health
Canada to participate and received a one-word reply: no. “The gist was
that under no circumstances would you be allowed to handle any of the
product,” says Jim Pelton, Kwantlen’s executive director of continuing and
If Canada is destined to become a lead player in medical marijuana
research, “the next few months are really going to tell the story,” says Ms.
Simons of the Arthritis Society. The charity recently issued its second
annual call for a “meritorious research project” on cannabis for medical
purposes. “We obviously hope to be at the forefront,” she says, “and we
will keep pushing.”
Despite the interest in research
by corporate partners, hurdles
persist. Federal research granting
agencies don’t see medical
cannabis as a research priority.