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Boom in marijuana research

Dr. Mark Ware has devoted the past 20 years of his career to studying marijuana, and he can remember some "dark, lean" periods when he had to fight for meagre funding.

"There were times when I was told you couldn't even use 'cannabis' and 'research' in the same sentence," he recalled.

Now, Ware is the chief medical officer of one of Canada's largest pot companies, Canopy Growth Corp., which is conducting millions of dollars worth of research on the use of cannabis to treat conditions including anxiety, insomnia and pain.

Legalization has sparked a boom in pot research, generating funding, jobs and the need for laboratory space. In the past, companies had little incentive to study an illicit substance, now they're racing to create new products and prove their benefits.

Ware, also an associate professor of family medicine and anaesthesia at McGill University, said there have been brief funding windows over the years. When Canada legalized medical marijuana in the early 2000s, there was a flurry of interest, he said.

He said the current boom started in 2014 after the former Conservative government brought in legislation that established a commercial industry for medical marijuana. Companies have also been anticipating the legalization of recreational weed since the Liberal government came to power in 2015.

Canada is now poised to become a research leader, he said, after it became the first G7 nation to legalize recreational cannabis on Oct. 17. Pot companies are rapidly expanding and have a "tremendous need" for qualified staff, including scientists and researchers, he said.

The federal government is investing in marijuana research too. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research announced $1.4 million in funding for 14 pot-related projects last January, and it helped launch a $3-million grant opportunity in July.

"What, I think, really is changing is the number of people who are now ready to apply for those funds and are interested in doing this research," Ware said.

"That's not so much a factor of regulation or funding. It's actually, I think, the stigma around cannabis has changed, and people are beginning to see that there is a credible reason for looking at medical cannabis seriously."

Vancouver's new mayor, Kennedy Stewart, is paying attention. He said the research and development potential of marijuana is "enormous" and he wants to establish the city as a hub for that part of the industry.

"The stock market's gone crazy with all these new companies and what they want to do is develop new products," Stewart said in an interview in November, shortly after being elected.

"The signal I want to send is that this is the place to bring your R&D money. To turn it from hippies on street corners to people in lab coats is really the image I would like to see."

The University of British Columbia has already launched a new professorship to study the potential of marijuana to treat opioid addiction. The school selected epidemiologist M-J Milloy to be the Canopy Growth professor of cannabis science.

Canopy contributed $2.5 million, while the province paid $500,000 to UBC and the BC Centre on Substance Use for the position.



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