Kitchener-Waterloo

Health Canada backlogs risk stalling Canadian cannabis research, says prof

Backlogs in permit processing at Health Canada has the potential to stall cannabis research in this country. "We have the best technology in the world to take this challenge on. And for us to slow down and let it slip through our fingers would be a tragic consequence," says University of Guelph cannabis researcher Mike Dixon.

Canada should be leading cannabis research worldwide, says University of Guelph's Mike Dixon

Mike Dixon said without a cannabis research permit, his students have to travel three hours away to Napanee, to conduct their research at the site of a commercial producer. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Backlogs in permit processing at Health Canada have the potential to stall cannabis research in this country, according to a University of Guelph researcher.

Health Canada told CBC News that as of Aug. 16, 2019, 224 researchers are waiting in line for their permit applications to be approved. In an article written Monday, the American Association for the Advancement of Science said as of the end of July, 251 researchers were waiting in line for their permits to be approved. 

When cannabis was legalized in Canada on Oct. 17, it became legal for individuals to have up to 30 grams for personal use, but researchers must apply for a permit under the Cannabis Act to study the plant for recreational — or medicinal purposes. 

That means Mike Dixon's Ph.D and master's students have to partner with an industrial cultivator in Napanee to get real-life experience. 

"So I have to ship my students three hours east on the 401 to do their research," said Dixon, a professor at Guelph's school of Environmental Sciences and director of the controlled-environment system's research facility. 

The University of Guelph is raising $20 million for a major medical research facility, called the Guelph Centre for Cannabis Research, that will, according to the unviersity's fundraising page, "focus on a range of areas including genetics, production, medicinal compound analysis, human and animal health benefits and much more."

And the research race between the US and Canada is on, Dixon said. Nearly half of the states have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational use. 

Cannabis research is 'Canada's plum to pluck'

"It's only the federal limitations on banking, etc., that holds the American juggernaut in research and technology development back," said Dixon.

"The minute the gloves come off south of the border we'll be left in the dust and to me that would be a tragic consequence. It's Canada's plum to pluck here. We should be leading this — worldwide. We have the best technology in the world to take this challenge on. And for us to slow down and let it slip through our fingers would be a tragic consequence," he told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

Dixon doesn't place sole blame at the feet of Health Canada and its permit processing.

"It falls to all of us," said Dixon. 

He said there are limitations in some of the government regulations that haven't changed with the times and appetite for research; but researchers shoulder some responsibility too. 

"Years ago, [we should have had] some strategic vision on how to carry cannabis along — with Health Canada's initiatives, with the policy and regulation limitations and requirements.

"We should have been voices at that table right from the beginning. And we weren't. And shame on us, quite frankly."

At full stride, the recreation Canadian cannabis industry is expected to be worth around $5 billion a year, according to research done by a Deliotte survey in 2016, and by a US-based cannabis research firm Brightfield Group earlier this year. 

CIBC analysts estimate it will be worth $6.5 billion by 2020. 

'Higher-than-expected demand'

Health Canada blames "higher than expected demand" for the delays, adding in a statement that it has made changes to expedite the approval process where possible. 

That includes adding "resources to the review team" and fast-tracking lower-risk applications that involve smaller amounts of cannabis.

"These changes, implemented in July 2019, are already showing results with nearly one third of the total of 113 research licences issued in the past month alone," said Health Canada. 

The statement went on to say Health Canada hopes to return to its service standard — 42 business days for a single permit application and 180 business days for multiple applications — "as soon as practically possible."

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