Part of Cannabis and your health
More than a year after the creation of two cannabis-specific research chairs in New Brunswick, the prestigious positions remain unfilled at a time when the private sector is increasingly attracting academics to its ranks.
The announcement in 2017 of the chairs, at St. Thomas University (STU) and the University of New Brunswick (UNB), appeared to kick off a national race to appoint the country’s first academic positions mandated solely for cannabis-related research. The chairs are thought to be the first of their kind in the world.
Instead of resulting in a slate of candidates jockeying for the chairs, the respective searches have taken months longer than anticipated. While a UNB spokesperson confirmed that the university is in the final stages of hiring a candidate, it remains unlikely that either university will have its chair in place before 2019.
Meanwhile, Canada’s leading cannabis scholars say the cash-rich private sector appears better-positioned than universities to do much-needed research work.
“Let’s face it, cannabis is a booming industry and there’s a lot of competition for talent,” said Jonathan Page, an adjunct professor of botany at the University of British Columbia and co-founder of Anandia Laboratories Inc., a privately owned cannabis testing and research facility. “Research has been really inhibited at universities and now when they want to recruit, they’re competing with companies,” he said. “It speaks to the issue of catching up with the private sector, which the universities now need to do.”
Underscoring this point is the recent move of Canada’s most-eminent physician involved in medical-cannabis studies to the private sector. In May, Mark Ware, the former vice-chair of Canada’s federal task force on cannabis legalization and a tenured professor in McGill University’s medical faculty, took a leave of absence from the school to become the chief medical officer at Canopy Growth Corp.
Dr. Ware, who spent a decade serving as the executive director of the Canadian Consortium for the Investigation of Cannabinoids, a non-profit organization of basic and clinical researchers and health-care professionals, crossed over to the private sector not long after learning that a years-long effort to win public funding for an integrated network of cannabis researchers had failed.
“There’s obviously a struggle in the academic sector to get funding. I’ve lived through this for 20 years,” Dr. Ware said, adding that Canopy’s offer of “the opportunity, the funding and the capacity to deliver on important data was unparalleled.”
Prof. Page, the UBC scientist, has devoted most of his time to private-sector work through his lab, Anandia, which was acquired by Aurora Cannabis earlier this year. Although the lab is on the UBC campus, its private-sector status – and licensing – has for years enabled Prof. Page and a stream of his university colleagues to gain access to cannabis for experiments they could not have done without it.
The reason, Prof. Page explained, is that prior to legalization, Health Canada’s regulations made doing cannabis-related research on campus prohibitive. Complying with federal security restrictions alone was too expensive for many researchers, he said.
Rebecca Haines-Saah, who studies youth and cannabis at the University of Calgary, said the cross-pollination between private-sector and academic cannabis researchers is not surprising given the long-standing academic chill the field has experienced.
“For so long, cannabis medical research has been discredited and disrespected,” she said, recounting social-media “pushback” she has seen unfold between pro-cannabis researchers and scientists who question the legitimacy of spending public money to study the drug.
“Given all the barriers placed in our way, these [private-sector] opportunities are worth exploring,” she said. “I guess a cynic would say industry is gobbling these people up.”
Some of those privy to the recruitment efforts for the chair in New Brunswick say the private-sector’s pull on talented researchers is only part of the problem.
One of them, Bruno Battistini, was until recently the CEO and scientific director of the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation. The provincial body will contribute $500,000 of the $1-million investments for each of the province’s chairs (Tetra Bio-Pharma Inc. will fund the other half at UNB while Shoppers’ Drug Mart will fund the remaining $500,000 at STU). He blamed “too much squabble” among department faculty members for recruitment efforts that have “been severely delayed.”
Dr. Battistini said his concern is that the province, which aspires to be a national hub for cannabis, has lost its opportunity to achieve an important first in Canadian cannabis research. “I am afraid that N.B. has lost its momentum,” he said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. “The province is no longer ahead of the curve – too much red tape, bureaucracy.”
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