This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
A biopharmaceutical company hoping to disrupt the cannabis extraction market is claiming some Canadian licensed producers are selling cannabis oils that are tantamount to placebos.
Cannabis oils have surged in popularity over the last couple years, but for medical patients—many of whom don’t want to smoke anything—they’ve become of particular importance.
Scientus Pharma is a Whitby, Ontario-based pharplacbosmaceutical company that will soon bring to market cannabis oils and gel capsules strictly for medical patients. The company is critical of the way LPs [licensed producers] currently decarboxylate their cannabis to make oils—decarboxylation is the process through which the THC or CBD in raw cannabis is activated. If you’re smoking or vaping, the heat causes the decarboxylation. But with oils, that process needs to take place during the extraction process.
Scientus recently patented its decarboxylation method, which it says will be a game changer in terms of standardizing the potency of weed oils; it claims it can achieve 99.9 percent decarboxylation every time. In a nutshell, Scientus is saying the industry standard—using a carbon dioxide extractor to decarboxylate weed and then turn it into oil—has too many variables and as a result some oils don’t have the amount of active THC or CBD they claim to have on the label. That means that a patient won’t necessarily be getting the effects they think they’ll be getting.
“[Patients] are paying $300 to $500 a month for that product and it’s not doing anything for them,” said Har Grover, chairman and CEO of Scientus.
However, both Health Canada and the organization representing Canadian LPs maintained that LPs are subject to the strictest regulations in the world.
Lakshmi Kotra, a senior scientist at Toronto General Hospital Research Institute, and Hance Clarke, medical director of the Pain Research Unit at the Toronto General Hospital, are both scientific advisors for Scientus. They are in the midst of conducting a clinical trial funded by the company that is in part analyzing samples of cannabis oil given to them by pain patients—all of the oil samples come from licensed producers.
Their preliminary findings show that of 14 THC oils listing full potency, only two actually had full potency. In one of the oils, less than 20 percent of it contained activated THC. Of ten samples of CBD oil that claimed to be 100 percent potent, only three were fully potent. One of them had no activated CBD.
“That’s a placebo,” said Grover.
Kotra noted that with any other medicine, you would take a tablet and find exactly what the medicine is supposed to contain, but with cannabis oils, there are patients “getting 80 percent inactive substance.”
“So it’s totally unregulated and from a patient’s point of view, they have to take five times more of the oil to get the same effect. Next time they go to the shop if they pick up a fully active oil, now the same dosing is not working.”
But how is this even possible?
The doctors both noted that science for cannabis as medicine isn’t advanced enough yet, and that it’s not yet at a place where it can truly be considered medicine because there’s a lack of standardization. They said that when it comes to labeling, LPs include both THCA and THC as THC and CBDA and CBD as CBD—but THCA and CBDA aren’t activated. That doesn’t matter when someone is smoking or vaping, but it does with oils that are simply ingested.
“We have reasonable doubt to say that what’s reported on the label may not match what’s inside the bottle,” said Kotra.
Reached by VICE, Health Canada spokesman André Gagnon said it can’t comment on the study because it doesn’t know its methodology. However, Gagnon said the production of cannabis and cannabis oils are “subject to some of the most stringent requirements in the world to protect the health and safety of Canadians.”
Part of those requirements including testing for potency levels before products can be approved by quality assurance.
LPs test their products either in house or using third-party testing.
Kotra and Hance said their study is one of a kind, and implied they don’t think Health Canada is caught up to their research, hence not requiring testing on the level of decarboxylation in oils.
Allan Rewak, executive director of the Cannabis Council of Canada, a national organization of licensed producers, told VICE Scientus claims about LP weed oil are “shockingly bold.”
“It is quite surprising that an academic study would be shared to the media prior to being published in this fashion. It is very unusual and most likely is related to a corporate strategy,” he said.
He said the source material cannabis oil will often change, and that results in ranges of THC and CBD in products but he said the THC content, as tested by third-party labs, is accurate on the label.
“Everyone’s trying to build a better mousetrap and I suspect that’s what this company is trying to do… but it is concerning to be blunt, cause we really believe in medical science and the medical industry. We believe in supporting medical patients."
He reiterated Health Canada’s messaging about how vigorous regulations are for LPs, and noted that “we have 300,000 Canadians who have found benefit from medicinal cannabis both in dried form and oil form.”
“We have done all of our research by the book,” said Clarke.
Jordan Sinclair, vice-president of communications for LP Canopy Growth, told VICE it’s difficult to comment without knowing the details of the study, which should be complete in the next two to three months. But he said the discrepancies found in the study could be due to human error i.e. mislabeling, or a difference in testing gear being used in the study versus by LPs.
He said Canopy tests for both THC and THCA after the oils are packaged to ensure accuracy and that people are getting what they pay for.
Patient advocate Tracy Curley told VICE the researchers claims are in line with what she’s heard.
“I’ve certainly heard of a discrepancy in dosage depending on what product client is using even though the label say that they are very similar,” she said.
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