Medical marijuana: Does research back up claims of therapeutic benefits?

published on July 29, 2016 by Carly Weeks in The Globe and Mail

A new Globe and Mail investigation is raising alarming questions about the safety of cannabis being sold illegally in unregulated dispensaries. But for the thousands of Canadians who use regulated and tested medical cannabis, there is another urgent issue researchers are scrambling to address: Does it work?

Background and regulations

Health Canada has not approved the use of medical cannabis, but a court ruling requires the government to “provide reasonable access to a legal source of marijuana when authorized by a health-care practitioner.”

Producers must pass Health Canada’s application and inspection process in order to sell medical marijuana. According to the department, there are currently 34 licensed producers in Canada. More than 53,000 clients were registered with licensed producers during the period between Jan. 1 and March 31, 2016.

There are also an unknown number of Canadians who are allowed to grow their own medical marijuana at home as a result of a 2014 court decision. A ruling earlier this year struck down a ban on homegrown medical marijuana; the government is expected to bring in new rules by the end of the summer.

“We need to see if, in fact, it’s legitimate by the standards of medical science,” said M-J Milloy, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia.

The active ingredients of cannabis that are believed to have therapeutic effects are called cannabinoids. They include compounds such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabinol (CBN). Although the mechanisms aren’t entirely clear, it’s believed cannabinoids work by binding to receptors found in the body.

The major obstacle that has long stood in the way is the lack of funding along with the stigma associated with studying cannabis. Governments wouldn’t allow researchers access to it, few funds were available for studies and most researchers didn’t want their names tied to the drug. There are a number of cannabis producers who are also becoming involved in medical research, and some experts have warned about the potential conflict of interest this could pose.

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