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Smoke signals: Medical marijuana in Canada

Zach Walsh, assistant professor of psychology, is co-director of the Centre for the Advancement of Psychological Science and Law at UBC’s Okanagan campus, and recently completed a major study on medical cannabis. UBC Reports asked him to shed some light on the Canadian medical marijuana debate.

Assist. Prof. Zach Walsh wants research to help assess and harness marijuana's therapeutic potential.

Why is medical marijuana such a hot topic in the news?

Recent developments in the U.S. and Canada, and across the globe really, have prompted a fresh look at cannabis use and the social, legal and medical status of the ancient and controversial plant. After decades of stigma and marginalization, superstition surrounding cannabis is being replaced by scientific research.

The federal government is proposing new guidelines for medical marijuana. What are the implications?

There are some potentially positive developments, and some not so positive. Everyone seems happy that the federal government is getting away from the business of supplying medicinal cannabis. It was just not working. The proposed changes will allow for diverse strains of cannabis to be grown, and should also allow people with substantial expertise to grow medicinal cannabis, so that is good. What’s also good is that we hope there will be a place for dispensaries for distribution. There is concern the new guidelines will no longer allow individuals to grow their own cannabis, which was affordable and empowering for some patients. How it eventually teases  out remains to be seen.

What research into medical cannabis is UBC involved in?

The main issue is how to most effectively assess and harness the therapeutic potential of this important medicine. To do this, we need a better grasp of the therapeutic use of cannabis in the community. Our team at UBC, together with the Canadian Aids Society, BeKind Okanagan Growers and Compassion Club, and medical cannabis patient groups, recently wrapped up the Cannabis Access for Medical Purposes Study (CAMPS), funded by the UBC Institute for Healthy Living and Chronic Disease Prevention. CAMPS is the most comprehensive study to date of cannabis use and attitudes among medical cannabis consumers in Canada. More than 600 Canadians who report using cannabis for medical purposes were surveyed. Respondents included both those authorized by Health  Canada and medical users outside of   the federal program.

Is access to medical cannabis a problem?

The majority of participants reported experiencing substantial barriers to accessing cannabis for therapeutic purposes, and further reported that these barriers negatively impacted their quality of life. These patients report finding cannabis to be an effective treatment for symptoms of diverse disorders such as chronic pain, arthritis, multiple sclerosis and depression—despite these barriers to access. With regard to pain, CAMPS results suggest that many patients prefer cannabis to opiate-based painkillers, due to its greater impact on symptoms and more tolerable side effects.

The study also found few differences between patients who access cannabis through the federal program and those who come to possess cannabis by other means. When many seriously ill Canadians are choosing to access their medicine though an illegal market rather than participating in a program they deem cumbersome and ineffective, it suggests that safe and consistent access is a real problem.

What are the alternatives to the Health Canada program?

Dispensaries, also called “compassion clubs,” currently provide cannabis-based medicines, education and other supports to between 25,000 and 50,000 patients in Canada, a significant number of them in B.C. My students and I have partnered with Rielle Capler, representing the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD), and Philippe Lucas of Canadians for Safe Access, for a three-year Medical Cannabis: Standards, Engagement, Evaluation and Dissemination (SEED) research project funded by the Peter Wall Solutions Initiative. The SEED study is designed to help CAMCD develop, implement and assess a system of standards for medical cannabis dispensaries. The development of consistent standards for dispensaries will help ensure product safety and promote education regarding appropriate use.

So where is this initiative going?

This project got off to a strong start last summer through consultations with community stakeholders, policy-makers, patients and dispensaries in downtown Vancouver. For the first time, representatives from B.C.’s more than 20 dispensaries gathered to discuss self-regulation, and contribute to the development of preliminary standards that will be assessed, revised and implemented across the final two years of the project.

What is next on the agenda?

My colleagues and I have initiated several studies examining the therapeutic, recreational, and problematic use of one of Canada’s most popular drugs. These include an examination of the role of cannabis in the complex relationships among depression, anxiety and pain, a study aimed at refining our understanding of how cannabis use relates to the use of other substances, and a longitudinal investigation of how personality factors influence patterns of recreational cannabis use among university students.

Together, this research will help inform the academic community and policy makers in Canada and around the globe about future directions for this ancient but still controversial plant.

Article originally published in UBC Reports.

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