Cannabis users around the world are eagerly awaiting legalisation day in Canada, with many no doubt ready to book a ticket to the Great White North where they’ll be able to smoke pot in peace. That day may still be a couple months off – on Thursday, the country’s senate voted to pass the bill with changes; it’s now with the House of Commons for another vote – but that’s not stopping Rick Kreminski from thinking about when he may be able to visit. “I’m going to Canada – I might even have to relocate there,” he says.
Kreminski, though, isn’t coming to partake in the legal weed. As the director of Colorado State University Pueblo’s Institute of Cannabis Research, he’s salivating at the potential research and data-gathering opportunities that legalisation in Canada will provide. In the US, where cannabis can be consumed in ten states, scientific research remains sparse. Until it’s legal federally, universities can’t give research subjects cannabis or test strains of it, either.
But in Canada, once legalisation occurs, all is fair game and that has Kreminski – and a heap of other researchers – rather excited. “If more people are allowed to undertake research then they’ll be able to answer the questions that a lot of people have here,” he says. “All kinds of things can be answered.”
For those interested in cannabis-related information, which includes academics, governments, accounting firms, think tanks and the average dataphile, Canada presents an enormous learning opportunity. With a population of 36 million, it will soon be the only country of any significant size where scientific research, with experimental and control groups, can be conducted.
“Canada has an important opportunity to become leaders in the area of cannabis research,” says Jason Busse, co-director of the Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research at Hamilton, Ontario’s McMaster University. “There’s a lot of interest in what’s happening here from researchers and producers in other countries.”
While the US, Uruguay – the only other country where cannabis is legal – and some countries in Europe, are engaging in research activities, most of it has been observational, Busse says. For instance, one study found that in some US states where cannabis can be purchased, opioid overdoses fell by 25 per cent. The problem? Without studying this in a more scientific way, it’s impossible to know for sure what’s causing opioid mortality rates to decline.
“If we could really take down the rate of overdoses by 25 per cent on average then that would be important to discover,” Busse explains. “But because it’s observational data, you don’t entirely know for sure what’s happening. We don’t know if we have causation there.”
Soon, Canadian researchers will be able to test, in a lab setting, if the results of all that observational research is because of legalization or something else.
There’s almost no limit on the kind of data that will be gathered, either. When the information floodgates open, researchers from all fields – health, criminology, policy, economy and more – will be able to collect information they weren’t able to get before. Patricia Erikson, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, is particularly excited about the ability to conduct longitudinal studies, which is when researchers follow the same people year after year.
These types of studies, which can give researchers insights into the long-term impacts of cannabis use, have been difficult to do. Only one major cannabis-related longitudinal study has been done in the UK. But most people don’t want to share their drug consumption habits more than once, if at all. Ethical issues and a lack of funding have hampered research, too. “What we’re really missing in Canada is a really good study of users,” says Erickson.
Kreminski has a wishlist of things he’d like to learn more about, such as how cannabis use impairs functioning, the extent to which cannabis is addictive and how pot impacts an adolescent brain versus an adult brain. Some of these things, such as addictiveness, have been tested in animals, but the value of such data has its limits. “Just being able to do studies that replicate other studies will be valuable,” he says. “It’ll help settle some of these questions.”
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