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Tilray Inc. is launching a study on Monday looking at the effects of medical cannabis on pain, sleep and quality of life among seniors. The observational study – taking place in a handful of clinics across the country – aims to collect data on between 600 and 1,000 elderly medical cannabis patients over the next six months.

To date, there have been few medical cannabis studies focused on elderly patients, said Dr. Blake Pearson, who specializes in cannabis-based medicine for seniors in Sarnia Ont., and helped design the study. Anecdotally, however, he’s seen positive results among many of his own patients who use cannabis oil for chronic pain and sleep, in both outpatient and long-term care settings.

"It’s the fastest growing segment of the population, and it’s part of the population where this kind of medication has some therapeutic benefits,” Dr. Pearson said. "It’s not the answer to everything. But it’s a reasonable treatment option in this population.”

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Tilray and several other large Canadian cannabis companies have been increasing their focus on studies and clinical trials, in an attempt to move cannabis into the medical mainstream and build up data for drug licensing applications. Most of the research, however, is still early stage.

“It’s basically another observational study that’s going to rely on data inputted from the patients, as well as my input too,” Dr. Pearson explained. “The observational study is just that, more observations; you can’t necessarily prove any kind of causation … But it adds another layer to the discussion... and enough observational studies can definitely form an opinion in someone who is educated on the subject.”

Canopy Growth Corp. announced a similar initiative focused on seniors in October. Its medical subsidiary Spectrum Cannabis is partnering with the Ontario Long Term Care Association to “measure how medical cannabis use can potentially displace other, less-desirable therapeutics for both pain and cognitive function for residents in a select group of homes,” the company said.

WeedMD Inc. is likewise focusing on seniors, having developed a medical cannabis program for long-term care homes that includes, according to the company, “education and training, prescription, delivery, tracking and research.” So far WeedMD has partnered with four long-term care providers in Ontario, “representing more than 3,000 beds.”

With seniors being significant consumers of mainstream sleep and pain medication, cannabis companies are clearly eager to transition a portion of that drug use to cannabinoid-based products. For Dr. Pearson, the opportunity is real, although people need to manage their expectations.

“I’m a cannabis realist... You have people who are saying, ‘hey it’s great for everything, don’t worry about it, there’s no side effects, it’s wonderful.’ And then you have a certain amount of people that condemn it, and say, ‘there’s no evidence.’ The reality is the answer is in the middle: there are some medicinal benefits and at the same time it doesn’t do everything for everyone, and there’s also side effects in this population,” he said.

For Tilray’s study, patients will use the company’s product provided to them at a discounted price. Tilray is also “providing minor compensation to physicians,” the company said. “The data is gathered independently on-site with an iPad. Tilray is using an independent group to do the analysis of that data once gathered.”

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