Perspective: Close the knowledge gap
Nations with cannabis programmes should respond to a lack of research. Canada can be a leader, say Jonathan Page and Mark Ware.
When it comes to medical cannabis, Canada is both a leader and a laggard. Policy-wise, Canada is ahead of many other countries, having had federal regulations that allow patients to access herbal cannabis (dried leaves and flowers) with a doctor’s authorization since 2001. Based on this early entry into medical cannabis, one would expect Canada to be at the forefront of research. Alas, this is not the case. As the number of patients accessing cannabis-based therapies has increased, research has not expanded. The opportunity to inform medical cannabis policy is slipping away.
The Canadian medical cannabis system continues to grow and evolve. The government, through Health Canada, has created a system to license producers to grow and distribute quality-controlled cannabis. Under this system, the patient population reached almost 24,000 in mid-2015, and around 4,000 doctors have prescribed cannabis. One would think that long-standing federal regulations and a large number of patients would mean that cannabis research is underway at many institutions in Canada. However, in the 14 years since the implementation of the first patient access programme, there have been only two federally funded clinical studies — a 2010 report that examined the use of smoked herbal cannabis to treat neuropathic pain1 and a multicentre cohort study exploring one-year safety data2. These studies were funded by Health Canada’s Medical Marihuana Research Program, which was scrapped in 2006 as part of federal budget cuts. To our knowledge, no university laboratory in Canada has been licensed to grow cannabis for research purposes. The regulations that give patients access make no specific allowances for research.