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 shop up on Grand Oro Road near Twin Lakes burned down on Monday. (Facebook)
Fire rips through shop in small South Okanagan town

The building was destroyed despite community efforts to fight the fire

Titanic was the largest and most luxurious ship in the world. Photo provided and colourized by Jiri Ferdinand.
QUIZ: How much do you know about the world’s most famous shipwreck?

Titanic sank 109 years ago today, after hitting an iceberg

(Natalia Cuevas-Huaico - Kelowna Capital News)
In a feature article published April 10, 2021 in The Times of London, ‘headlined British Columbia has what it takes to rival Napa Valley,’ the valley is praised extensively for its natural beauty and wine. (File photo)
From the U.K. with love: Okanagan wine, scenery receives international praise

The Times of London newspaper recently featured the valley in a wine and travel piece

The currently vacant lot on Main Street where a Dairy Queen, retail and residential spaces have been approved to go into. (Town of Oliver)
Main Street in Oliver is getting a Dairy Queen and residential units

Oliver council gave its approval to fill the empty lot with DQ and residential units

A person receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS
B.C. sees 873 more COVID-19 cases Tuesday, decline continues

Hospitalizations up to 377, two more deaths for 1,515 total

Prospera Place in Kelowna. (Marissa Baecker/Shoot the Breeze)
Kelowna Rockets return to the ice after COVID-19 quarantine

All individuals within the team cohort tested negative for COVID-19 earlier this week

This 2013 Dodge Ram 1500 was stolen from Black Creek Motors at approximately 2 a.m. Sunday, April 11. Photos via blackcreekmotors.com
VIDEO: B.C. car dealer posts clip of thieves towing a truck right off his lot

Video shows one white truck towing another off Vancouver Island lot

Bylaw enforcement officer Marcel Bedard sits behind the wheel of his 2004 Chevy Cavalier in 2017. He retired on April 9, 2021 after 24 years working for the City of Salmon Arm. (File photo)
Salmon Arm bylaw officer parks his parking tickets after 24 years

Despite the insults that go with the job, Marcel Bedard enjoyed his work for the city

FILE – People hold signs during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver on Saturday, August 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. to request federal exemption for simple drug possession

Announcement comes on 5-year anniversary of B.C.’s first public health emergency

(AP Photo/Matthias Schrader, FIle)
Rare blood clots ‘may be linked’ to AstraZeneca vaccines: Health Canada

One case of the adverse effect has been reported in Canada

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. The province has restricted indoor dining at all restaurants in B.C. due to a spike in COVID-19 numbers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C.’s COVID-19 indoor dining, drinking ban extending into May

Restaurant association says patio rules to be clarified

Vernon North Okanagan RCMP are looking for the rightful owners of two standup paddleboards seized in an investigation March 19, 2021. (RCMP)
Is this your SUP?: Vernon police

Two standup paddleboards seized by police to be returned

Two men walk past a sign on Main Street in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Calls for government transparency in COVID data continue as B.C.’s 3rd wave wears on

Social media, where both information and misinformation can spread like wildfire, has not helped

Most Read