Big pharma snub, lack of placebo to blame for lack of medical pot research: experts

Despite a growing number of Canadians turning to medical cannabis

A disinterested pharmaceutical industry and the conundrum of finding a convincing placebo are just two reasons experts say there has been little quality research into medicinal marijuana.

A growing number of Canadians are turning to medical cannabis despite questions about its risks and effectiveness as a health product.

Marijuana’s unconventional journey onto the medical market puts it at odds with more mainstream medications, which typically undergo years of costly scrutiny before being approved for use, said Mark Ware, a pain researcher at McGill University Health Centre in Montreal.

Ware said pharmaceutical companies are willing to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for clinical trials because once a drug is approved they have a window of time to sell it exclusively.

“When you think about medications that have been given approval to be sold in pharmacies, that’s where most if not all of our medications come from,” he said.

“That model simply does not hold for much of the classical herbal cannabis research, where you’re looking for basic claims of efficacy and safety, but not trying to make a formal claim for a product that is going to be patented.”

READ: Marijuana rules will be ‘a work in progress’

Ware, who also served as vice-chair on the federal government’s task force on legalizing cannabis, said competition among licensed marijuana producers is leading some of them to funnel money toward research in an effort to differentiate their brand from others.

But Dr. Mike Allan, a professor of family medicine at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, said there are few benefits for producers to conduct the research.

“It’s already at market so there’s really no incentive, or virtually no incentive, for licensed producers to take the money they’re generating from the sale of these products and reinvest it in research,” Allan said.

While a positive outcome might not have much of an effect on the industry’s bottom line, a negative outcome could seriously harm profits, he added.

Data from Health Canada show the number of clients registered with licensed medicinal cannabis producers jumped between June 2016 and June 2017, from 75,166 to more than 200,000. Registrations more than tripled in each of the two previous years.

University of Saskatchewan professor, Robert Laprairie, said the absence of the pharmaceutical industry means medical marijuana research is being done for the benefit of the patient.

“We’re in a unique place because a lot of large pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to fund these studies where they don’t necessarily see the incentive for something that they aren’t able to patent,” said Laprairie, who conducts cannabinoid research at the university.

WATCH: Province, Feds see lots of work ahead of marijuana legalization

Laprairie said he has seen a heavy push in recent months from academics, patients and licensed producers for more medical cannabis research.

But Dr. Meldon Kahan of the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, said this kind of research, sponsored by licensed producers, is still problematic.

“You can design a short-term study with marijuana, or for that matter, with alcohol or opiates, and say, ‘Look, we gave people a bunch of alcohol over a three-day period or one week or one month and they seem to feel better. It helped their anxiety.’ But that doesn’t mean it’s a good medication,” he said.

Kahan said there does appear to be some evidence that cannabidiol, a compound in marijuana, does have some medical benefits, including pain relief, but more study is needed.

Ware said another dilemma in conducting research on medical marijuana is the absence of a plausible placebo, especially because study participants often have experience using cannabis and recognize if they have been placed in the study or control group.

“Access to a credible placebo may seem like an odd thing to have as a challenge,” Ware said.

“But bear in mind that many of these studies are placebo-controlled, so you need a drug which is a credible placebo — looks and smells and for all intents and purposes pretends it is cannabis when in fact it does not have the active ingredient you are testing.”

Allan cited a study that found between 85 and 90 per cent of nurses could tell when patients were on pills derived from cannabis.


@katslepian

katya.slepian@bpdigital.ca

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Playground reopens at Vernon’s Polson Park

No more standing water, park reopens just in time for summer’s end

Vernon man brews up award-winning flavours in Golden

Kenton (Kent) Donaldson is co-founder of Whitetooth Brewing Company Ltd. in Golden

New group home for Vernon

Howard House to be replaced by new development

Stolen vehicle recovered from site of Vernon manhunt for wanted man

Police return to Brooks Lane in response to reports of suspicious vehicle

Vernon talent airs for Top of the Country

Raquel Cole semi-finalist in SiriusXM contest with Canadian Country Music Association

COVID-19: 4 more deaths, 366 new cases in B.C. since Friday

A total of 8,208 people in B.C. have tested positive for COVID-19 since January

16 COVID-19 cases reported in Interior Health region

One person is in hospital and 34 people are isolating

Group wants Parliament, courts to hold social media to same standard as publishers

Daniel Bernhard made the comments shortly after Friends of Canadian Broadcasting released a research paper

Truck, Shuswap police vehicle collide during arrest of wanted man

Emergency response team and helicopter called out to assist in Chase area arrest

Shuswap search and rescue crew respond to dirt biker injured on Mount Ida

North Vancouver man transported to hospital for treatment of injuries

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Popular South Okanagan cafe shuts its doors

Saint Germaine Cafe and Gallery served its last latte Sept. 19

Kelowna woman to run from Vernon to Penticton for mental health awareness

Melissa Gosse’s 100-kilometre ultramarathon will raise funds for Canadian Mental Health Association

Film that explores themes of missing Indigenous women to screen in Kelowna

Rustic Oracle is the story of a missing teenage Indigenous girl, told through the eyes of her seven-year-old sister

Most Read