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‘The System Is Swamped.’ Canada Can’t Keep Up with Requests to Study Cannabis

By August 20, 2019No Comments

The Canadian government is scrambling to respond to a glut of license applications for cannabis research prompted by the drug’s legalization in October 2018. The queue of applicants—there were 251 in line as of late July—and the attendant monthslong waiting times are frustrating scientists interested in the basic biology and therapeutic possibilities of cannabis. The delays are also prompting criticism of Health Canada, the agency charged with issuing the permits.

“Everybody is growing, consuming, and buying it, but the labs are still: ‘How do we get these projects going?’” says Jonathan Page, chief science officer for Aurora Cannabis in Edmonton, one of Canada’s licensed producers of the psychoactive plant. “The [licensing] system is swamped, and research is not exactly, I think, a priority.”

Health Canada says it is committed to the research and is trying to speed the process. But for now, “It’s incredibly slow—much slower than it used to be,” adds Igor Kovalchuk, a plant geneticist at the University of Lethbridge, who began to study cannabis under regulations governing it as a narcotic, before it was legalized for recreational use in Canada. “October 17, 2018, is when things slowed down tremendously.”

That date marked the enactment of the Cannabis Act, which made Canada the second nation, after Uruguay, to legalize recreational marijuana. Some Canadian researchers previously studied cannabis under stringent restrictions, but the act’s accompanying regulations gave the scientific community more freedom to grow the plant, ship it, tweak its chemical and physical properties, and administer it to research subjects—provided an investigator wins a license.

In October 2018, at a stroke, Health Canada was confronted with a massive task: processing scores of new research license applications, not to mention hundreds of others from would-be growers, processors, and others not involved with research. Although cannabis is now legal for recreational purposes, it is not available without constraints: Regulations implementing the Cannabis Act dictate a strict system controlling its production, distribution, and sale—and its use in research labs. New research applicants must document the quantities of cannabis they plan to receive or grow, submit floor plans illustrating required security features, and explain how they will destroy any leftover cannabis at the end of a project—with two witnesses standing by to attest to the destruction.

As it copes with a flood of new applications—and applicants’ learning curves—Health Canada has also had to migrate into its new online licensing system scores of preexisting research permissions. “I feel for Health Canada. They have been handed an almost impossible chore,” says Michael Dixon of the University of Guelph, who studies how factors such as light and nutrients affect the growth of cannabis and other plants.

The agency is processing applications “as quickly as possible,” a Health Canada spokesperson said in a statement, which noted it had boosted to 140 the number of employees now working with cannabis license applications of all kinds. And it has begun risk-based triaging of research applications, so that, for instance, a researcher conducting a single project with a small amount of cannabis would likely go through expedited review.

Last month, after an article from the Canadian news organization CTV revealed the long waits for research licenses, the agency began to make weekly announcements of the new research permits it has granted: Fifteen were issued in the week that ended on 16 August, bringing the total to 113 since October 2018—45 of them since 12 July.

“We expect the weekly number to grow in coming weeks,” the Health Canada spokesperson says. Its goal: a 42-day turnaround time for research licenses for single projects, and a 180-day response time for licenses to conduct multiple research protocols.

But the irony of waiting months for permission to study even microgram quantities of a substance that their 19-year-old students can smoke in abundance—the legal limit for recreational purposes is 30 dry grams—isn’t lost on aggravated would-be researchers. “I understand the need for control over what happens to this product. … But there has got to be a difference between, ‘Are you going to produce 600 kilograms a year or are you going to administer a couple of grams in a research project?’” complains Bertrand Sager, a graduate student at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, who in June applied for a license to study the effects of cannabis on driving behavior, using simulators. His initial study would involve 90 participants and use a total of 22.5 grams of cannabis.

Some scientists counter that Health Canada is performing well, given the demands. Kari Kramp, a natural product chemist at Loyalist College in Belleville, has worked with cannabis since early 2018 and recently applied to amend her license to allow her to grow the plant in beakers in her campus lab. Last month, she says, she and colleagues peppered three Health Canada officials on the phone for 1 hour with questions about how to get their application right. “I was pleased,” Kramp says. “The manager reinforced that they want to support research.”