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Marijuana: Canada Falls Behind As Burgeoning Industry Hits New Highs

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B.C. bud was once the green standard of marijuana.

It was so well-regarded in the early 2000s that dealers in the U.S. tried to pass off other varieties as Canadian to fetch premium prices. Weed from the west coast carried cachet for being particularly potent, with small time growers perfecting their product to maintain the reputation.

It was a time when Canada’s Liberal government flirted with decriminalization, and the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that access to medical marijuana must be legally available.

It was a ruling that could have swung the laboratory door open into a new world of research on the therapeutic uses of the controversial treatment for everything from glaucoma to Crohn’s disease to cancer.

But those high times are over.

The door toward more research has remained shut, thanks in part to a lack of federal funding for medical research, while other countries that allow patients access to medical marijuana have pushed into new medical frontiers with customization of strains for specific patients.

Now, as a new multibillion-dollar industry buds in Canada, some of this country’s licensed producers are leaning on the expertise cultivated in other countries to help get their operations off the ground.

Here’s a look at what’s happening in some of the other countries that have been moving forward to advance the field of medical marijuana:

  • Israel
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    In Israel, there is technically no legislation regulating marijuana for medical purposes but its Ministry of Health issues special licences allowing patients to use cannabis for certain medical reasons.

    The country has been at the forefront of medical marijuana research since the 1960s, when Prof. Raphael Mechoulam isolated and studied THC, the psychoactive property in cannabis that leaves users feeling “stoned” but also helps relieve symptoms like food aversion and nausea.

    Another Israeli professor, Ruth Gallily of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has studied the other main medicinal ingredient CBD, the property that can act as an anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety medicine.

    Canadian licensed producer MedReLeaf has partnered with Tikun Olam, Israel’s primary supplier of medical cannabis, and a company on the cutting edge of marijuana advancement. It counts Mechoulam, “the grandfather of THC,” among its advisers.

    “It’s the only country that I know that has been researching it for so long, and consistently,” said Maayan Weisberg, Director of Marketing and Business Development during an interview at MedReLeaf’s Markham, Ont., facility.

    MedReLeaf has licensed some of Tikun Olam’s patented strains of marijuana that the company developed based on research collected from about 7,000 patients over the past seven years. Now, the company is involved in clinical research in major hospitals in Israel.

    “We are the only company in the world that has this accumulated data about patients,” Weisberg said.

    Tikun Olam, whose name means “healing the world” in Hebrew, has used patient feedback to create hybrid strains and play with genetic material. The company has experimented with different concentrations and ratios of cannabinoids to customize treatment for different types of patients.

    “If it’s an elderly patient, you don’t instruct them the same way you do a child, you don’t instruct a Parkinson's patient the same as you do a cancer patient.”

    Israeli researchers have studied the role of cannabis in treating a variety of ailments including anti-tumour properties for cancer patients, reducing weight loss among HIV patients, treating neuropsychological disorders and preventing tremors and shaking in multiple sclerosis sufferers.

    The researchers last year found evidence that marijuana helps fight Parkinson’s and Crohn’s disease.
  • The Netherlands
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    Though the Netherlands legalized medical marijuana two years after Canada, its main provider has enjoyed more freedom to experiment than Canada’s former sole provider CanniMed, which was limited to one strain under the government’s old program.

    Unlike in Canada, medical marijuana has been available through pharmacies since 2003 through a government agency that also works with universities and research institutes.

    There is one major supplier in Holland — Bedrocan, which has used feedback from patients, epidemiological studies and genetics to develop three strains of marijuana to cater to specific needs. Bedrocan also ships to other European countries that allow medical marijuana. It is working to develop clinical trials in Holland.

    Bedrocan’s three strains are all covered by Holland’s largest health insurer, and a majority of physicians support its use.

    Now, Bedrocan Canada, a sister company that is importing product from Holland, is one of 12 licensed producers under Canada’s new medical marijuana free market.

    Though the Canadian ruling came first, the country is still far behind in developing medical marijuana in part due to how the drug was introduced. In Canada, a Supreme Court ruling forced the government’s hand and made it possible to access cannabis for medical reasons, whereas in the Netherlands, medical usage became available because of a sympathetic government .

    “The program in Canada has been forced upon Health Canada by the Supreme Court whereas in the Netherlands it was developed out of a compassionate use for patients so they have a lot more liberal attitude towards cannabis and how it can benefit,” said Marc Wayne, head of Bedrocan Canada.

    He blames a change in government funding policy that was ushered in by the Harper government eight years ago for cutting off experimentation with therapeutic uses of ganja.

    “On the scientific level we’ve been kind of stunted in Canada.”

    Under a program that started April 1, which allows commercial-sized grow operations, research funding will be left up to the private sector. In the Netherlands, Wayne explained, Bedrocan is funding much of the research.

    “It definitely influences what strains are brought to market,” Wayne said, adding that patient research is behind the six strains Bedrocan now has available.
  • United States
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    Licensed Canadian producers are turning south of the border for marijuana growing know-how.

    Tweed Inc. of Smiths Falls, Ont., did research in Colorado and turned to Maine to find master grower Ryan Douglas, who worked for a state-level medical marijuana facility. There, he oversaw 20 strains of grass. Similar advancements are taking place at the state level across the U.S.

    Yes, even Canada’s War on Drugs-focused neighbour is making strides in the development of new marijuana strains. Although marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, more than 20 states now allow medical marijuana usage and two states allow recreational use. An additional 12 states now have legalizing recreational marijuana use on the agenda.

    There is research being done in universities and institutes, and even the American Medical Association has endorsed the reclassification of marijuana from a Schedule I “most dangerous” drug to allow for further study.

    Though officially opposed to its use as a medicine, the U.S. actually holds patents for cannabinoids.

    Most recently, a proposal to study the effectiveness of cannabis in treating post-traumatic stress disorder got the green light from two U.S. federal agencies. Researchers are waiting on the Drug Enforcement Agency for the go-ahead for a clinical study at the federal level. The FDA has also approved clinical trials for the use of marijuana in treating epilepsy.

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