Legal weed means more money for research on the plant. Image: Shutterstock
Canada’s legalization of pot this week isn’t just a boon to formerly closeted stoners—Canadian scientists are also stoked about easier access and better funding to the devil’s lettuce, kickstarting a new wave of cannabis research.Research on cannabis has been going on in Canada for years. Several Canadian post-secondary schools already offer classes and degrees related to the industry, and schools such as McMaster University and the University of Guelph in Ontario have entire labs dedicated to cannabis.
But restrictions on obtaining the plant for research purposes continue to be a barrier. As a result, there’s a lot we still don’t know about cannabis—its genetic makeup and effects—compared to other, more easily studied plants.
“Just preliminarily, even getting data on this extraordinarily valuable crop proved very, very challenging,” said Sean Myles, research chair in Dalhousie University’s Department of Plant, Food, and Environmental Sciences, over the phone.According to Myles, in the past it was difficult to find research partners that had the proper licenses to produce cannabis—most were only allowed to grow hemp, which doesn’t contain enough THC to make it worth lighting up or to research.Now that cannabis is legal nationwide, Myles said that it will increasingly be treated—and studied—like any other organism.“Most of the potential comes from the fact that you can grow large numbers of plants under controlled conditions, measure them, and do the kind of work that really opens [the research] up,” Myles said.Myles said he’s wanted to study cannabis since as early as 2009. He and his colleagues had been focused on gathering the genetic information of different organisms—mostly apples and grapes—and thought that cannabis studies were an untapped area.“What attracted us to cannabis in the first place is the fact that it's such an enormously valuable economic crop,” Myles said. “Cannabis has a tremendous value, despite having very poor genomic resources. The amount we know about genetics is way out of whack with its economic value.”
According to the business consulting firm Grand View Research, the global legal cannabis industry is set to be worth more than $100 billion worldwide in the next decade, and Statistics Canada reported that Canadians spent $5.7 billion on cannabis in 2017.On the first day of legalization, CTV News reported that Alberta sold about $730,000 worth of the stuff on its online store.But compared to other profitable crops such as rice and corn, which have been extensively researched for years, Myles says we still have a lot to learn about cannabis. There’s such a lack of information that we can’t even get the strains right.
A 2015 study that Myles co-authored found that what’s marketed as C.Indica and C.Sativa, the two main strains of cannabis widely known by consumers, isn’t always based in biology but by their perceived effects. A strain called Cold Creek Kush, for example, could be produced and sold by multiple vendors with little biological similarities, but all be advertised as a stress-reliever.For Amy Porath, the director of research at the Canadian Centre for Substance Use and Addiction, legalization means that more people will be able to access science-based information about cannabis instead of relying on anecdotes from their local dealer.Last year, the CCSA released a report detailing its research priorities for cannabis in the next few years, which included its effects on the brain and a person’s mental health. Porath said she’s heard all sorts of false beliefs about cannabis—like it makes you a better driver (it’s still illegal to drive high) and prevents cancer.
“There is a lot of misinformation on the internet,” Porath told me. “There's a lot of mixed messages out there in the popular media, so there's a real need to have balanced, evidence-based public education for youth.”Myles said that he’s excited that Canadian researchers will be able to work on the forefront of the huge scientific shift happening with cannabis.The federal government, as well as private institutions, has been pouring money into cannabis research since legalization was announced in 2015. Last year, the Canadian government launched a research grant of $1 million ($766,000 US), giving up to $100,000 to ten cannabis-related projects, with at least one project specifically dedicated towards research involving Canada’s Indigenous peoples. In May, four researchers from the University of Alberta received $300,000 in cannabis-research funding through two private companies, Mitacs Canada and Aurora Cannabis.“It's super exciting,” Myles said. “Like, this never happens. All of a sudden, there's an organism on the planet that's worth a tremendous amount, that nobody knew anything about, and you're allowed to investigate it with some pretty deep pockets behind it.”Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.