Regulations, funding keep Canada from becoming world leader in cannabis research, scientists say
Health Canada systems slow, researchers say, and work on abuse is better funded than medical research
Onerous regulations and insufficient funding are holding back cannabis research in Canada, some experts say, a year after recreational use of the drug became legal.
"I'll be honest, I've become very cynical over the past year," said Lynda Balneaves, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba's College of Nursing and deputy director of the Canadian Consortium for the Investigation of Cannabinoids.
"I think [regulations are] really preventing us from rapidly getting research conducted, and getting research evidence out to clinicians, to the general public, to policy-makers.
"I think we've actually created some very difficult procedures to get the research off the ground."
Since the use and sale of recreational cannabis became legal in Canada on Oct. 17, 2018, Balneaves said she's seen an explosion in the number of researchers seeking to study the drug, and increased federal spending.
But she says strict rules and delays at Health Canada have put barriers in the way of new projects, and funding from government and industry hasn't kept up with booming interest — leaving some of Canada's ample potential untapped.
Scientists had high hopes for research possibilities opened up by legalization. Ottawa's leader on the file, Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair, has said there's a need for more research on the drug and the world is looking to Canada as a leader to do it.
"There is a lot of potential in Canada," Balneaves said.
"But I think we need to be much more proactive in funding this area if we hope to be that world leader. Otherwise, we will be surpassed by other countries that are rapidly running down this road."
A matter of accountability: researcher
The federal government's framework to guide legalization called out the "significant gaps" in understanding cannabis use and impairment, and said further research is "needed urgently."
Jenna Valleriani, a cannabis researcher and CEO of the National Institute for Cannabis Health and Education, said facilitating cannabis research in Canada is a matter of accountability.
"It's great that we're legalizing cannabis," she said. "But I think what's more important is that we're actually seeing evidence and data to inform those policies."
Since legalization, scientists have spoken out about lengthy delays at Health Canada in processing applications from researchers to work with cannabis. Though cannabis possession is now legal, researchers must still apply for a permit under the Cannabis Act to study the plant's recreational or medicinal uses.
Michelle St. Pierre, a PhD student in clinical psychology at the University of British Columbia, said she reached out to Health Canada in January with a question about her application. Four and a half months later, the agency responded by directing her to an online resource she'd already consulted.
St. Pierre, whose work earned her a prestigious Vanier Canada scholarship, said Health Canada's approval process for cannabis research is less strict now that the drug is legal, but is still far more onerous than studying alcohol, for example.
That process included Health Canada asking her for documents, she said, that she had never been asked to prepare before.
She said it's not clear to her why the cannabis process is so much more stringent.
"It was very, very complicated, and when I think about alcohol, this type of licence isn't required at all," she said. "I'm not really sure what else it would be, [other] than stigma."
A spokesperson for Health Canada said the agency has heard those concerns, and introduced a suite of changes in July, including adding more resources for the team that reviews research applications, tweaking the review process for lower-risk projects (like ones that involve a small amount of cannabis) and publishing guidelines to help researchers make applications.
As of Oct. 4, the agency had issued 171 research licences — up from 71 in mid-July — and had 181 still in queue, the spokesperson said.
"It's hard to overstate the consequences of these kinds of barriers in terms of slowing down and stopping research," said James MacKillop, director of the Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research at McMaster University.
"Appropriate researchers will not go forward without all the necessary compliance pieces being in place."
Funding directed to harm reduction, not medicine
The licensing delays have meant a lack of the well-designed clinical trials MacKillop said are "universally acknowledged" to be needed.
"Fundamentally, without these kinds of licences, researchers can't generate the kind of evidence that we all agree we need to have a safe and appropriate understanding of cannabis."
MacKillop said his lab hasn't had trouble accessing funds for its work, and praised Ottawa's commitment to funding research.
Total government funding for cannabis research was $5.6 million in the 2018-19 fiscal year, a spokesperson for Canadian Institutes of Health Research wrote in an email. That's down from roughly $7.6 million in the 2017-18 fiscal year, but up from roughly $4.5 million in 2016-17.
While that federal funding is a good start, say Valleriani and Balneaves, it has been outpaced by a boom in researchers in the field. Where a "handful" of cannabis scientists were applying for grants five or six years ago, Valleriani says hundreds are now vying for funds.
"It equates to even less … funding available, because the competition is so, so high," she said.
Despite legalization, Valleriani and Balneaves said they see the stigma of cannabis lingering in the way grants are distributed, with a focus on research into potential harms from the drug, such as addiction and mental health problems.
The CIHR's Integrated Cannabis Research Strategy names "medical benefits" as one of its three key research streams, alongside "understanding harms" and "data standards." But Balneaves said medical research hasn't seen its share of funding.
"When you keep funding people that are only focused on substance use, you're going to get messaging that's going to focus on substance use," Balneaves said — "not necessarily [research] saying, 'How do we look at cannabis from an unbiased perspective, or from all sides?'"
The CIHR spokesperson said decisions about how to direct funds are made through a peer-review process. The organization awarded 66 individual cannabis-research grants in the 2018-19 fiscal year, including seven that got funding from external partners.
Funding will begin in 2020 for a handful of projects looking into the potential impact of cannabis on pain management, mild traumatic brain injury, migraines and anxiety.
Valleriani and other researchers described funding cannabis research as a shared responsibility between government and industry.
"These are folks that are going to eventually be making lots and lots of money," Valleriani said. "[There's a responsibility] to kind of give some of that back to research initiatives."
She said she sees cannabis legalization as a chance for researchers to build a relationship with industry.
And in spite of challenges, Balneaves said overall, she still sees potential for success in Canada's weed research landscape, as long as it's balanced between medical and non-medical research.
"We just have to make sure … there's access to the product, and we have to make sure that there's funds available."