The only thing clear about research into medical cannabis is that more research is needed.
That was a conclusion expressed by many experts who gathered at the first cannabis conference hosted by the Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medical Cannabis Research at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton West 5th Campus on the weekend.
“This conference is really the initial offering we have to the scientific community,” said McMaster University associate professor Jason Busse, an expert in chronic pain and a co-director of the cannabis center that opened in October.
The hope is the conference will help create a network for cannabis research and act as a “project incubator” to launch much-needed studies.
The two-day Innovations in the Science of Cannabis Conference covered a range of areas regarding cannabis research, from looking at questions around addiction to clinical applications, including for treatment of chronic pain, cancer pain and arthritis.
The first legislation legalizing medical marijuana in Canada came in 2001, yet many of the experts who spoke said it has been exceedingly difficult to study cannabis because of restrictions around security, funding and societal stigmas. Most of the studies that have happened have been small and limited.
Busse told the conference about a systemic review of research where he and a team have been analyzing results from 26 clinical trials that studied cannabis and pain. These trials were small — 1,915 patients in total — but did show a “small but important improvement in pain,” he said.
Stigma and lack of knowledge has led many physicians to avoid recommending medical cannabis to patients, Busse said. But with the countdown to recreational legalization in Canada this summer, the hope is this shift will open up new opportunities for larger studies.
Statistics from states in the United States where marijuana has already been legalized show a reduction in the use of prescription medication for anxiety, depression, pain, and muscle spasms, Busse said. These are all applications that need to be studied.
One speaker at the conference, Jason McDougall, a professor of pharmacology at Dalhousie University, spoke about anecdotal evidence that cannabis helps arthritis patients. This includes patients who say it helps reduce inflammation, pain and helps with sleep.
“We need to listen to the patients,” he said.
But there are also concerns.
Alan Budney, a professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth, spoke about using social media to get quick (and cheap) survey on how people use and think about cannabis. One survey he highlighted showed an alarming number of marijuana users drive while high, and many believe they can safely drive while high.
James MacKillop, a clinical psychologist, addictions expert and co-director of the center, said they really want to study “both sides of the coin,” looking at potential benefits and risks of cannabis.
“We really want to avoid the lore and myth that exists (around cannabis),” he said, adding that they want to “follow the science.”
Since opening in October the medical cannabis research center already has a number of pilot projects ongoing.
One study in the works is following several group of people after recreational marijuana becomes legal to see if the change has any impact on whether — and how much — cannabis people are consuming.
“It’s a national, natural experiment,” MacKillop said, of legalization.