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

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

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

A heavy snowfall in the Chilcotin overnight, as seen here at Ulkatcho First Nation near Anahim Lake on Friday, Nov. 27, has resulted in several downed power lines and the closure of some of Highway 20. (Graham West photo)
Heavy snowfall, downed power lines, Highway 20 closed Bella Coola to Anahim Lake

A travel advisory is in effect between Tatla Lake and Anahim Lake

More than 60 cm of snow has fallen at Ulkatcho First Nation since a snowfall warning went into effect Thursday, Nov. 26. Submitted photo)
VIDEO: More than 60 cm of snowfall in Chilcotin since Thursday, Nov. 26

Graham West of Ulkatcho First Nation captures the scene on video

Newly elected Cariboo Chilcotin MLA Lorne Doerkson participated in a virtual oath ceremony with the BC Liberal Caucus on Friday, Nov. 27. Here he poses for a photograph with Kate Ryan-Lloyd, clerk of the legislature. (Screen image taken of YouTube live stream)
Cariboo Chilcotin MLA participates in BC Liberal Caucus virtual oath ceremony

First-time MLA Lorne Doerkson will represent the region

Snow continues to fall near Anahim Lake as shown here on the DriveBC webcam Friday, Nov. 27. (DriveBC image)
Snowfall warning for Chilcotin expected to last until noon Friday

Drive BC is warning of black ice between Tatla Lake and Alexis Creek

Patrons exercise at Re4rm Fitness prior to last week’s new, provincial COVID-19 regulations. (Photo submitted)
Williams Lake fitness centres adapt amid new COVID-19 regulations

Gymnastics, dance studios, martial arts, yoga, pilates, strength and conditioning impacted

A woman wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as she walks along the seawall in North Vancouver Wednesday, November 25, 2020.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
911 new COVID-19 cases, 11 deaths as B.C. sees deadliest week since pandemic began

Hospitalizations reach more than 300 across the province

Screenshot of Pastor James Butler giving a sermon at Free Grace Baptist Church in Chilliwack on Nov. 22, 2020. The church has decided to continue in-person services despite a public health order banning worship services that was issued on Nov. 19, 2020. (YouTube)
Two Fraser Valley churches continue in-person services despite public health orders

Pastors say faith groups are unfairly targeted and that charter rights protect their decisions

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A big job: Former forests minister Doug Donaldson stands before a 500-year-old Douglas fir in Saanich to announce preservation of some of B.C.’s oldest trees, July 2019. (B.C. government)
B.C. returning to ‘stand-alone’ forests, rural development ministry

Horgan says Gordon Campbell’s super-ministry doesn’t work

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Alexandre Bissonnette, who pleaded guilty to a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque, arrives at the courthouse in Quebec City on February 21, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mathieu Belanger - POOL
Court strikes down consecutive life sentences; mosque shooter has prison term cut

The decision was appealed by both the defence and the Crown

Gold medallists in the ice dance, free dance figure skating Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, of Canada, pose during their medals ceremony at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Charlie Riedel
Olympic champions Virtue, Moir and Tewksbury among 114 Order of Canada inductees

Moir and Virtue catapulted to national stardom with their gold-medal performances at the Winter Olympics in 2018

Shoppers line up in front of a shop on Montreal’s Saint-Catherine Street in search of Black Friday deals in Montreal, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Black Friday shopping in a pandemic: COVID-19 closes some stores, sales move online

Eric Morris, head of retail at Google Canada, says e-commerce in Canada has doubled during the pandemic.

After twice have their wedding plans altered due to COVID-19 restrictions, Suzanne Schmidt and Andrew Sturgess got married in Bakerview Park last weekend, with the only guests being their two daughters, Zoey (foreground) and Tessa. (Darren Ripka photo)
From New Zealand to Bakerview Park, B.C. couple weds in ‘backyard’

Twice scaled-down wedding ‘proof that good things still happen during bad times’

Most Read