Momentum mounts for medical marijuana

published on February 10, 2016 by Karen Birchard and Jennifer Lewington in University Affairs

More Canadians are using medical marijuana for a wider array of health ailments, but the research hasn’t kept pace.

It was a watershed moment for the study of medical marijuana. This past December, Canadian university researchers, federal and provincial officials, patient advocates and industry representatives met in Vancouver to set priorities for evidence-based inquiries into a drug long overshadowed by its reputation as an illegal way to get high. The two-day, invitation-only meeting – convened by the Arthritis Society and partly funded by licensed growers of cannabis for medical purposes – is the latest sign that investigations of medical cannabis are moving into the research mainstream.

Corporate sponsorship

Lately, some of the funders of cannabis researchers are neither government nor charitable foundations, but rather companies that produce medical marijuana. This past fall, M-J Milloy received $1-million from National Green Biomed Ltd., a prospective grower of medical cannabis, to research the drug’s effects on HIV/AIDS patients. Dr. Milloy, an assistant professor in the AIDS division of UBC’s department of medicine, says NG Biomed is “as committed as we are in trying to build an evidence base for cannabis and trying to figure out what risks and benefits there might be for HIV, for arthritis, for all sorts of medical conditions.”

The company offered to fund Dr. Milloy’s research after he conducted an observational study (with funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health) in which he tried to replicate an animal study that had shown monkeys given a cannabinoid before and after being infected with HIV had significantly lower viral loads and less inflammation. In his study, Dr. Milloy used medical data collected on heroin and cocaine drug users in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and found that marijuana users who subsequently developed an HIV infection had less inflammation and just half the viral loads of HIV/AIDS patients who had not smoked marijuana before the infection. “This is the first time we’ve found a direct impact of marijuana on the disease process itself,” he says.

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