Hundreds of academics across the country are waiting on a complex approval process to begin studying the impacts of cannabis on an array of topics including impacts on drivers, CTV News has learned.

Health Canada says that as it transitions hundreds of authorized research licences from the Narcotics Control Regulations to the Cannabis Act, “there have been challenges in processing times for new research licence applications.”

More than 350 existing research licensees are in the process, while only 65 new licences have been approved since cannabis was legalized Oct. 17, with another 250 applications at various stages of the review process.

"Some people don't even try because it's so difficult," said Simon Fraser University PhD candidate Bertrand Sager.

He has been making enquiries to launch a study on the impact of cannabis on drivers since well before legalization, and after a lengthy approval process through the university’s ethics board, he was stunned to have Health Canada outline the requirements for a research licence, which are similar to those required by cannabis producers.

"I feel this is not cannabis research per se, it's driving research that uses cannabis," said Sager, who plans on putting 90 participants through a driving simulator on campus.

The seating and driver setup is identical to a vehicle, but it’s a shell of the front end of a vehicle without tires and drivers respond to screens around the “vehicle” and their eye movements on the mirrors and instruments are tracked to see how quickly they respond to stimuli. Further testing would determine whether participants under the influence of cannabis are able to remember things from one screen to the next.

“The requirement seems to be geared towards R and D on cannabis products, which is not what we're doing. We're doing driving research and we want to use cannabis in the same way we might use alcohol," explained Sager, who says he wouldn’t need permits or exemptions to run a similar trial with booze.

He says he will only need 23 grams of marijuana for the tests, less than the 30 grams allowed for personal recreational possession.

“Health Canada recognizes the importance of cannabis research and is committed to promoting and enabling that research,” said Health Canada in an email statement to CTV News.

But it also outlined that while each application is assessed on a case-by-case basis, research licence holder must meet all the requirements under the Cannabis Regulations, including:

  • Physical security measures to prevent unauthorized access
  • Storage measures “appropriate to the amount of cannabis required”
  • Record-keeping practices “that ensure the accurate tracking of the inventory, production and destruction of cannabis
  • Prevention of diversion or retail sale of research products

The statement also said “Research licences are intended to provide a mechanism to authorize otherwise prohibited activities with cannabis for the purpose of research,” but when CTV News asked what “prohibited activities” meant in an era of legal, recreational use, Health Canada said it would consults its internal experts before responding.

“It’s very frustrating because when we heard rumours cannabis would be legalized we began designing the study because we wanted to be among the first out the door,” said Sager.

He anticipates waiting a year or longer for approval of his study, and is disappointed the government agency is making it so difficult to study an area that needs concrete answers to important questions that could be critical to public policy and legislation moving forward.

"There are still a lot of things that aren't known about how cannabis impacts cognitive performance in general and driving specifically,” he said.

“It affects different people very differently, so there are a lot of people who will say 'I drive way better when I'm high.' Maybe they do, maybe they don't. Nobody knows, it's just a self-perception that we have and one of the things we know about the mind is it's very bad at examining itself.”