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 that 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.”