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Why We Need More Medicinal Cannabis Research

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Dr. James Mackillop

Director, Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research


Dr. Jason Busse

Associate Director, Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research

Credible, evidence-based data about medicinal cannabis is limited, but this Canadian research centre is working to change that.

“There has been an exponential growth in the use of medical cannabis in Canada — a 2,000 percent increase since 2014 — but there has not been extensive research to support its therapeutic benefits,” says Dr.James MacKillop, Director of the Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research.

Founded in 2017 and headquartered at McMaster University, the Centre’s primary goal is to use evidence-based research to gain a better understanding of the benefits and harms associated with medical cannabis.

“There is a lot of misinformation about medical cannabis out there, and the majority of information people find on the internet isn’t close to being based on sound research and science,” says Dr. MacKillop. “We want to generate new knowledge for clinicians, patients, families, and policy makers.”

Deeper research leads to better medicine

Every medicine prescribed in Canada goes through rigorous testing to determine whether it’s effective for specific medical conditions and what side effects might occur. However, this hasn’t happened with medical cannabis. According to Dr. MacKillop, the decision to regulate medical cannabis was driven by court decisions, and not the gauntlet of clinical trials and Health Canada approvals that other drugs typically go through.

“There are some good labs in Canada doing this kind of research, but we have a unique opportunity through our research centre to have a highly coordinated strategy with the infrastructure to address this issue,” he says. “We’re an incubator for researchers who have a more complex interest in this field.”

Science should come first

Dr. Jason Busse, the Centre’s Associate Director, is anexpert in the field of chronic pain. He says that even though some evidence suggests medicinal cannabis can help patients manage their pain in certain cases, further research is crucial.

“Many patients do not benefit from the limited treatments available for some conditions, such as chronic pain and anxiety. This has led us to be less critical of the evidence around cannabis,” he says. “We need to be careful to not let the marketing get ahead of the science. Cannabis is a complex plant, made up of more than 500 chemicals, and yet current research has largely focused on only two of those components — cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).”

While CBD does appear to have some anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving attributes, it’s THC that is responsible for potentially-harmful psychoactive effects. “The possible benefits of CBD for patients with chronic pain is an extremely exciting story,” says Dr. Busse. “I think the potential is there, but there is an urgency to understand the science behind the product so we can know when it will help people, and when it might harm them.”

Ken Donohue

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