Skip to main content

Scientists studying the ways cannabis may harm or benefit us are finding it increasingly difficult to secure the drug for their trials, in part because struggling Canadian growers are largely focused on making a profit four years after legalization.

Well-funded cannabis companies were eager to supply researchers at the dawn of legalization – a time when Ottawa had a less strict approach to the quality of products needed for these trials, say M-J Milloy of the University of British Columbia and James MacKillop of McMaster University in Hamilton, who both oversee teams of scientists. Soon, though, Health Canada instituted new rules that made it difficult for researchers to find products made to the required near-pharmaceutical grade.

Last year, the federal agency relaxed some of its research rules to make it slightly easier for scientists to study the effects of cannabis on a range of ailments, but most companies are now uninterested in donating – or even selling – their products for these trials, according to the pair. The head of the licensed cannabis industry’s largest trade association agreed that this support has largely dried up as companies fight for their survival.

This lack of industry help, the scientists said, has hurt the pace of much-needed clinical studies that could bring Canadians more concrete knowledge about cannabis. Researchers must secure a licence from Health Canada in order to conduct trials, and the product they use must meet the department’s stringent requirements. This means scientists cannot simply purchase legal cannabis the way most Canadians do: from a licensed retailer.

Dr. Milloy, who has been studying how low-income people on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside use cannabis for more than a decade, said he recently bought $5,000 worth of cannabis oil capsules after spending a year engaging more than a dozen growers to help with a coming study of how the drug affects methadone users.

“Most of the time I never got a response,” Dr. Milloy told The Globe. “I didn’t ask for a handout. We were prepared to buy this at cost. Typically, drug companies give product for free, because they realize that the more research done the more it helps them.”

Dr. MacKillop, director of McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research, said most commercial cannabis entities are now focusing on their bottom line.

“They have bigger fish to fry than to support research on the side,” said Dr. MacKillop, who added that Ottawa’s regulatory red tape still creates too many headaches for scientists trying to conduct randomized control trials.

George Smitherman, chief executive officer of national industry association the Cannabis Council of Canada, said growers have mostly stopped funding new research in recent years as they fight to survive in a highly regulated market.

“We went from the industry of 2018 – of freshness and heavy expectations – rather quickly into the gripping reality of unattractive margins and really tough regulation, amounting to not very much left for anything else,” said Mr. Smitherman, whose group represents about 45 licensed growers, including many of Canada’s largest companies. “Show me the industry where they all lose money but they all invest in research.”

Since the pandemic touched down in Canada, he added, some of the biggest players in the sector have even dropped their executives in charge of research initiatives.

“I’m dealing in a regulated environment where companies hardly have any regulatory affairs staff – it’s really thin,” Mr. Smitherman said.

Philippe Lucas, who last year left Tilray, a grower based in Nanaimo, B.C., after seven and a half years in charge of patient research, said some Canadian companies are still supporting scientists, but abroad in places such as Germany and Italy. That is because governments there make it easier to secure and study cannabis, he explained, and supporting this work gets them good publicity in those emerging markets.

Both Mr. Smitherman and Dr. Lucas say licensed producers would donate more product to science if Health Canada further relaxed its rules so that researchers could use legal cannabis that is the same quality as that sold for recreational use in storefronts across the country.

Dr. MacKillop and Dr. Milloy agreed.

“It boggles my mind that I could click a button this second and buy a product via the Ontario Cannabis Store, but it would take me months and months to ever get permission to give that same product to a participant in a research study – if I would ever get permission,” Dr. MacKillop said.

Health Canada did not immediately respond to a request late last week about the lack of supply for clinical trials.

The Liberal federal government resisted calls to create a national body at the outset of legalization to organize and prioritize all cannabis research. Instead, it has channelled any government-sponsored studies through the country’s three research councils, as well as the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. Several universities have also created centres for such research.

Cannabis researchers are pushing for Ottawa’s upcoming review of the legalization of the drug to create a better system for engaging in the kind of work promised at the outset of legalization.

One solution to ensuring scientists have a supply of high-quality cannabis for their research would be for Ottawa to create an official stockpile, Dr. Milloy said, so that products can be stripped of their brand names and given out.