In the wake of a CTV News investigation that found hundreds of cannabis research licences are being bogged down by a lengthy and complex approval process, one of the most influential politicians in B.C. is urging Health Canada to step up its approval process.
Solicitor General and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth didn’t mince words when asked what he thought about the cannabis research licence process that requires academics and other clinical researchers to apply for permission to acquire and possess the now-legal substance for study purposes.
The personal exemption is 30 grams, but researchers aren’t allowed to possess any at all.
"British Columbia has made it clear that we want to see more research done, we want to be expedited and we’re very supportive of that taking place," said Farnworth. “It's clearly something I would like to see happen.”
Farnworth told CTV News that he’d spoken with Bill Blair, federal minister of border security and organized crime reduction and federal cabinet minister overseeing cannabis legalization, about the issue.
After Health Canada was unable to address why the research licences were necessary in the wake of legalization on Oct. 17, with any Canadian now legally able to purchase cannabis, the agency referred CTV News to Blair for further comment.
Over the course of more than two weeks, CTV repeatedly requested interviews with Blair to discuss the 350 existing research licences slowly being processed from compliance with the Narcotics Act to the Cannabis Act, in addition to 250 new applications at various stages of the review process. As of July 10, only 65 new research licences had been approved by Health Canada, prompting the agency to admit “there have been challenges in processing times for new research licence applications.”
On July 30, Blair’s office said the minister was “unavailable” but that the government “understands the need for more research,” and that $1.4 million in new funding has gone to support 15 research teams “examining the health impacts of the legalization and regulation of cannabis in Canada.”
But the email response did not explain why the government has decided it’s necessary to monitor the storage, physical security, record-keeping and prevention of diversion for retail sale – the same kind of stringent requirements that are required for cannabis producers under the Cannabis Regulations requirements.
On July 10, PhD candidate and cognitive neuroscience researcher Bertrand Sager came forward to say Health Canada had told him his study on the effects of cannabis on drivers would have to wait at least a year for the appropriate approvals, despite having passed the rigorous requirements of Simon Fraser University’s ethics board.
"Some people don't even try [to conduct research] because it's so difficult,” he said, pointing out that when cannabis was illegal research was very difficult and there hasn’t been much peer-reviewed work done in a variety of fields. “For example, there are still a lot of things that aren't known about how cannabis impacts cognitive performance in general and driving specifically.”
The medical community is also urging Health Canada to streamline the process. The Canadian Medical Association says it “remains concerned about the lack of clinical research… Therefore, we continue to urge the government to invest resources and funding in independent research to assess the impact of cannabis in health and health care."
Bob Rae, former Ontario premier and one-time interim Liberal leader now lectures at University of Toronto School of Governance and Public Policy and tweeted that the research licence backlog means “Canada losing [sic] competitive advantage in cannabis research and product development that should have followed from the legalization decision. Valuable time and opportunities being lost.”
Dr. Michael Verbora, a physician who teaches medical students about cannabis at McMaster University in addition to advising a cannabis company, believes the government is over-regulating the substance and essentially continuing to treat it as a narcotic – losing out on beneficial research time in the process.
"I am fearful that other countries will regulate this a little bit better and we will lose our opportunity and our position, potentially, as research leaders on cannabis," he said from Toronto, urging the government to figure out why it’s taking so long to approve research that could inform doctors and policymakers across the country.
Verbora added that he’s encountered many academics, researchers and investors eager to study the plant but facing “exceptionally high amounts of red tape,” which many find baffling in an era when any Canadian can legally possess a cigarette pack’s worth of cannabis.
“At the end of the day this is research, this is people trying to get the facts about cannabis, which is going to benefit public health,” he said.
“I hope people in positions of power and those with the right organizations who have influence in this area will look at that [waiting applications] and say 'something's not working here what can we do to improve this?'"