Did Canada legalize weed before doing its research?

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There’s a world of mystery inside those frosty hairs that coat your cannabis. They are called trichomes, and they grow on lichens, algae, and various plants around the world. The small, mushroom-shaped fibres are also a source of THC and CBD-forming metabolites and the terpenes that give cannabis its unique fragrance. 

Researchers from the University of British Columbia revealed the structures and chemical outputs of glandular trichomes for the first time in a study published in The Plant Journal in 2019. It’s the type of early days research that deepens our understanding of the plant and can be built upon for further studies. It is also the type of work that is sorely needed in Canada, cannabis researchers say. 

Every question that gets answered only opens up 10 or 20 new questions,” says Sam Livingston, the lead author of the study and a PhD candidate in UBC’s botany program. 

From developing a scientific understanding of the plant, to its impact on heart health, pregnancy, and diabetes, there are still more questions than answers when it comes to cannabis. As we approach the two-year anniversary of legalization, restrictions around research continue to make it difficult to find answers. Researchers warn that those restrictions, and the ensuing gaps in knowledge, could lead to bad policy, negatively impact consumers and slow Canada’s opportunity to become a global leader on cannabis science. 

Bogged down by permit backlogs

Even post-legalization, researchers still require a permit to study the plant. Livingston says it’s easier to grow cannabis in your backyard than it is to conduct research on it in a lab. 

Since 2018, researchers and scientists have complained that their work is hindered, stalled, and sometimes, not even started due to the Health Canada permit process. Each application outlines details such as the nature of the research facility and the scope of the work, to the site personnel, record-keeping and security. 

“They are intimately aware of every process that happens from the ground up in terms of knowing what the facility is going to look like, who is going to be entering the premises and who is going to have the specific lock combination for the specific lock on the specific growth chamber,” Livingston says.

Health Canada says it has taken steps in recent months to address those concerns, including adding additional members to the application review team and streamlining some of the paperwork. 

“Since the improvements that have been implemented in July 2019, Health Canada has issued more than 150 new research licences and reduced the number of applications in (the) queue by more than 30 per cent,” a Health Canada spokesperson told The GrowthOp. 

Livingston says those changes have helped, but more will be needed for Canada to take advantage of the global opportunity.

In a blog published by Policy Options last November, researchers listed six actionable steps to improve the landscape of cannabis research. It calls for an embrace of scientific cannabis research and says that funding should flow equally for research that seeks to examine the plant’s therapeutic potential as well as research into its harms. 

“There really are so many things that we don’t understand about the plant. And I think as we continue to learn more, it’s going to be interesting to see what sort of response Health Canada has in terms of being able to open up the procedures for being able to get those licenses through and being able to perform the research that is so desperately needed,” Livingston says.

Private vs Public

Cannabis research in Canada is also divided between two worlds, the public and academic and the private and corporately-funded. In recent years, Livingston says there has been a proliferation of private research behind closed doors, which isn’t shared the same way through academic cannabis research networks.

Brishna Kamal, co-founder of Whistler Therapeutics, has worked on private research and in partnerships with universities. She says she is sympathetic to the barriers faced by academic researchers. 

“The two research licences I have right now, between two universities, we’ve done all the paperwork ourselves for them,” she says. “It’s been myself and my quality assurance individual. So we provide that support to universities as well, when we work on collaborative projects with them. But it is quite frustrating for an academic. I’ve been there myself as an academic to go through all the regulatory hurdles to be able to carry out simple, simple projects.”

Kamal is currently working on a research project, alongside a UBC professor, that has been in the queue for the past four months. She says she heard back from one regulatory affairs specialist early on, stating that he was going to meet with his supervisors to see if a full clinical trial application was required, but since then, it’s been crickets. “I called him yesterday again, no response,” she says. “In my opinion, it seems like there’s a lot going on at the Health Canada licensing office. And they’re trying to make the research go a little bit more smoothly, but I think they’re swamped.”

Kamal, like many other Canadian cannabis researchers, has begun working with clients in other countries, like Germany, Spain, and New Zealand, where the processes, though still detailed and laborious, are not always so onerous. 

“There are more funds abroad for me and for my company,” she says. “And that means less knowledge and less innovation is going to come about in Canada and we’re going to lose as a country. We might have been the first to legalize, but we’re definitely not the first to take research as a priority.”

Increasing the amount of funding that supports drug research could help alleviate that problem, she says, and could provide more insight into critical areas, such as the impact of cannabis on youth.

“Literally, Health Canada’s doing a population study right now,” she says. “That’s how I view legalization.”

Other countries that are considering loosening their pot laws, like Australia, have decided to take a different approach and have placed a greater emphasis on research. Canada could benefit from doing the same thing, Kamal says, however belatedly. 

“We should have found out more about the plant before we actually legalized it,” Kamal says. “That’s what Australia is trying to do right now. When the whole cannabis space erupted in Australia, they allocated about $40 million for research. Health Canada allocated $4 million when it became legal. And they dedicated it to youth education and preventing use of cannabis. I get that we need to protect the youth. But can we find out why we’re protecting the youth first?”

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