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Canadian health researchers, long starved of funding for cannabis-related projects, are lining up to tap $24.5-million in new federal funding that was announced last week, according to Dr. Samuel Weiss of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

“We’ve had a letter of intent phase. I can’t divulge the details, but let’s just say that the interest is the most overwhelming interest I’ve seen since I’ve been at CIHR,” said Dr. Weiss, the director of CIHR’s Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health, and Addiction. The CIHR is the federal government’s main funding body for health research, and Dr. Weiss heads the cannabis funding initiative.

Because cannabis was left out of mainstream health research for decades, there are significant gaps in scientific knowledge about the drug. Recreational legalization has increased the urgency of dealing with these gaps, at the same time that researchers have gained access to more stable, research-grade cannabis products, Dr. Weiss said.

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"The level of very effective, scientifically valid knowledge in the area is minimal. And the reality is we need significant new research investments, both in understanding harm, so that we can actually reduce it, and also understanding medical benefit, so we can promote it and enhance it,” said Dr. Weiss.

The most urgent area requiring more research has to do with cannabis and brain development, he said.

"There are major efforts to understand the impact cannabis has on brain development, right from in utero until the end of brain development. And let’s remember, brain development goes to the age of 25. So one has to be looking at the impact [of cannabis use]... with a particular emphasis on cognitive function and mental health and addiction,” said Dr. Weiss.

On the health benefit side, the funding focus, at least initially, will be for research looking at cannabis treatments where some evidence of therapeutic benefits already exists.

“We have low-to-moderate evidence for benefits [from cannabis use] for neuropathic pain, for spasticity in multiple sclerosis and for nausea associated with cancer chemotherapy.... We now need to take that low-to-moderate evidence and raise it to moderate-to-high evidence," Dr. Weiss said.

Around $3-million of the new funding will be directed towards 26 research projects, under the CIHR’s Catalyst Grant system. According to a CIHR news release last Wednesday, three of projects already selected include:

  • Dr. Julia Knight at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute: Examining the relationship between exposure to cannabis during pregnancy and early life and child development.
  • Dr. Farnaz Amoozegar at the University of Calgary: Looking at the use of cannabis to prevent migraines.
  • Dr. Sean Barrett at Dalhousie University: Examining the use of cannabidiol to manage stress and anxiety in adults.

The majority of the funding, $16.5-million, will be given out as Team Grants, with matching funds from organizations such as the Arthritis Society, Canadian Cancer Society, Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada and Mental Health Commission of Canada. Dr. Weiss expects these grants to be awarded towards the end of the year.

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CIHR isn’t the only source of funding for cannabis research; licensed producers are increasingly sponsoring clinical trials and endowing university research chairs. However, researchers wanting to tap federal funding have to ensure their work is not tainted by conflict of interest due to industry ties, Dr. Weiss said.

"Clearly the rapid evolution of the cannabis industry requires a very careful evaluation of any potential around conflict of interest or erosion of public trust. To date, we have no relationships with the cannabis industry whatsoever. Whether or not such partnerships may be possible in the future, are subjects of discussion,” Dr. Weiss said.

“I can tell you that many people are concerned about how you manage the conflict of interest. Because remember, for us, sales of product has nothing to do with our interest. Our interest is authoritative health knowledge and the best health outcomes.”

The universities or research hospitals applying for the grants are responsible for ensuring that there is no conflict of interest, Dr. Weiss added.

Along with money for health research, Health Canada also announced $4.95-million in new funding for research into public policy. This will be administered in partnership with the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. “These partnerships will produce evidence to help governments develop, implement, and evaluate the effectiveness of cannabis policies,” a news release said.

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