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Government-approved cannabis research on the rise

It’s often remarked Health Canada has taken an “overly cautious” approach to regulating cannabis with consideration to the plant’s medical applications. The government still does not endorse the use of the plant as a “therapeutic product”, but it does provide what data it has available—over 1,600 research documents, in fact. The scientific and medical literature spans subjects from palliative care and pain, to stress and psychiatric disorders. But, since legalization, we’re starting to see breadcrumbs of internal attitude shifts as the regulator endorses an increasing number of new studies from its research affiliates.

On Thursday (Feb. 20), the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), a government non-profit formed in 2007 as a response to a Senate committee tasked to study mental health, mental illness, and addiction, put out a call for research proposals. The organization says it’s “seeking applications from priority populations who are interested in conducting community-based research on the relationship between cannabis and mental health.”

Health Canada estimates one in three Canadians (about 9.1 million people) will be affected by mental health issues in their lifetime, based on data collected in 2012. In 2010 alone, the economic burden of all mental health disorders in Canada was over $10 billion.

A 40-year meta-analysis published in The Lancet Psychiatry revealed “scarce evidence to suggest that cannabinoids improve” a litany of mental health conditions, which strongly contradicts the growing anecdotal evidence suggesting both tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) can “have therapeutic potential with antipsychotic, anxiolytic, and antidepressant properties”. This underscores a discrepancy in the data collected over the last four decades and an insufficiency in mechanisms of collecting personal experience from self-titrating patients.

The deadline to submit a proposal to MHCC is April 23.

Last year, Health Canada also approved the first-ever national clinical trial for cannabis as symptom relief. Using products provided by Whistler Medical Marijuana Corp., BC Cancer is in the process of developing a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study looking into the plant’s applicability for the reduction of cancer-related symptoms including pain, anxiety, and nausea. The organization is currently still in the study’s approval process.

And it’s not just non-profits getting the green light to dig deeper into the plant’s therapeutic applications. Federally licensed cannabis producers (LPs), both publicly traded and private corporations, are investing in health-related research studies. Most recently, Aurora Cannabis announced a Health Canada-approved study in partnership with the Epilepsy Research Program of the Ontario Brain Institute. Using “medical grade” CBD capsules provided by Aurora’s wholly-owned subsidiary MedReleaf, the study aims to deduce the role of CBD combined with a low dose of THC in decreasing the number of motor seizures in adults with drug-resistant epilepsy.

There are currently just over a dozen clinical trials looking into THC registered in Health Canada’s database, and nearly 20 more relating to CBD. Larger international research databases show dozens more in various phases of recruitment and completion status throughout a number of Canadian organizations.

While there is a growing body of research looking into the health related effects of cannabis consumption in Canada, research in North America has traditionally been eclipsed by countries like Israel and Spain. Experts say it’s the strict regulations impeding necessary research.

Health Canada currently collects market data on the quantities of cannabis purchased for health-related purposes through LPs with medical programs, however since the plant’s recreational legalization, it has become increasingly difficult to track the purposes of usage trends. And as compassion clubs are being snuffed out and LPs are funneling most of their product to provincial wholesalers, patient support programs are falling to the wayside.

With rumours about Health Canada axing its medical system all together, many are left wondering: what will be left for medical patients? Canadian educational institutions are slowly introducing cannabis into its medical curriculum, including seminars for doctors already in the field, but some fear it will require a full generational change before patients see the resources they need filtered down to clinics and general practitioners.

This article is available under a Canadian Creative Commons licence.