Canada’s Grand Cannabis Experiment Has Set Scientists Free

New York Times [November 20, 2018]

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — When Canada fully legalized recreational cannabis on Oct. 17, the internet giddily reimagined the CN Tower in Toronto peeking out from a thick haze and swapped the flag’s red maple leaf for its jagged-edged green cousin. Outsiders might titter about an entire populace turning into potheads, but legalization means some of the country’s brightest can now turn their minds to pot.

As the first G-7 nation to slacken cannabis laws, Canada has bolted to the front lines of the plant’s methodical scrutiny and investigation. No longer at risk of censure or lacking access to specimens, researchers can transcend the narrow parameters of scientific study once considered acceptable, namely, clinical research, to explore social, biological, genetic and agricultural questions. From botanists to phytochemists, microbiologists to epidemiologists, scientists of all sorts are free to openly pursue a greater quantity and quality of cannabis science than ever before.

Ninety-five years of prohibition has made for a rather brief encyclopedia entry, meaning what we do know mainly comes from anecdotal observation and short-term studies. But Canadian laboratories aren’t starting from scratch. It was Canada, in 2001, that became the first country to sanction the medical use of marijuana. It was a Canadian team, in 2011, that published the first sequence of the cannabis genome. Yet these landmark contributions, and the array of peer-reviewed studies that were spurred, rarely strayed past lines of inquiry that ran parallel with social norms.

Research lurched forward with the early legal steps, offering sick and suffering Canadians a new option to manage chronic pain, treat symptoms of PTSD and boost their overall quality of life. It dwindled under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Conservative who slashed health and drug policy budgets and slammed cannabis as “infinitely worse” than tobacco (experts say it’s the other way around). Research multiplied again in 2014, when commercial growers got clearance to supply mail-order medical marijuana to Canadian patients, commodification that simultaneously energized corporate interests.

Canada’s brand-new legislation, the Cannabis Act, replaces a restrictive system that treated researchers like would-be drug dealers. Scientists intending to cultivate their own plants can now simply apply for a specific class of license rather than toil for an exemption from the retrograde Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which, among other demands, required criminal record checks.

The Canadian government, once unwilling to touch the stuff, has stepped up to properly examine how cannabis affects the body and brain. It’s funding 14 new studies and has set aside millions more for research grants that could ask questions like, Will a pregnant mother using cannabis harm her baby’s development? Does smoking affect drivers’ reaction time behind the wheel? And at what threshold does teenagers’ pot consumption become destructive?

Canada’s private sector is even more frenzied over the business case for audacious research. In the lead-up to legalization, producers rushed to get medical licenses so that they could formulate novel cannabis-based products. Already, more than 130 companies have been approved, with hundreds more in line. The industry’s leaders have opened large-scale trials, including exploring the plant’s power to alleviate chemotherapy-induced nausea and reduce seizures in epileptic children. A multimillion-dollar university professorship has been established to investigate a cannabis solution to the opioid overdose epidemic. Smaller businesses are dabbling in the renegade development of infused creams and potent concentrates. And academia and nonprofits are leveraging industry to fund more daring studies and advocacy work, for instance, realistic educational programming to develop teenagers’ “cannabis literacy.”

With the legal barriers torn down, a path has been cleared for Canadians to stake a global claim in the emerging field of research. New science projects are taking shape in Europe, Israel and Australia, many the fruit of joint ventures with Canadian companies, others made possible only with imported dried medical marijuana and cannabis oil from Canada. The country has become “the de facto source of research-grade cannabis around the world,” contends Philippe Lucas, who is the head of research for the Canadian producer Tilray, which has completed exports to 10 countries.

Canada’s grand experiment has already been a catalyst for smarter science in the United States, where its federal prohibition has choked research. Although 33 states have relaxed their marijuana laws, only one facility in Mississippi is federally licensed to supply dried cannabis, and its product is often derided by researchers as lackluster.

Enter Tilray, which, in a rare first this September, was approved by the Drug Enforcement Administration to supply cannabis extract from Canada to a California neurologist who’s developing a treatment for tremors in the elderly. (Tilray has also built a greenhouse in a Portugal research park, expanding the science into the European Union.) America’s cannabis entrepreneurs, however, aren’t so keen on the prospective northern pot pipeline. One multistate medical grower has pleaded with President Trump for domestic regulation in a full-page Wall Street Journal ad, fretting that “America is rapidly losing its competitive advantage to Canada!”

As bidding wars replace the drug war, legalization promises empirical evidence for policymakers caught between popular sensibilities and a paucity of data. Canada’s statistical agency and the country’s health ministry are already gathering information from a newly visible population of cannabis users. The metrics could enable jurisdictions worldwide to devise policy reforms and public health programs that minimize legalization’s potentially negative impacts.

The scholarship on cannabis will finally advance now that a developed, Western society has welcomed back an ancient drug plant, says Jonathan Page, a Vancouver-based plant biologist and a leader of the cannabis genome project. Therapeutic marijuana application dates back thousands of years, according to archaeological and historical records.

In June, Mr. Page sold his laboratory Anandia to one of Canada’s largest growers, Aurora Cannabis, for 115 million Canadian dollars ($88 million), and last week he was appointed its chief science officer, overseeing some 40 Ph.D.- and M.Sc.-level researchers. He envisions Canadian scientists conducting a cornucopia of taboo-defying research, from decoding cannabis’s sensory appeal to testing whether it can be used as a substitute for alcohol. Science, he says, could even settle the perennial debate over whether there are, in fact, two types of cannabis: sativa, said to provide uplifting, cerebral sensations, and indica, considered to be sedating.

“Marijuana’s hard-won return to the Canadian mainstream suggests that psychoactive plants matter to modern lives and will continue to shape human culture,” he said. “Prohibition was just a blip on the timeline of civilization and a dark age for science.”

In an age of global paranoia, Canada’s decisive leadership has produced a veritable green-field opportunity. It’s incumbent on our scientists to do the plowing.

Amanda Siebert

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