VANCOUVER — The University of British Columbia is creating a new professorship to study the potential role of marijuana to treat opioid addiction, a move that faculty members say will begin to fill a cannabis research gap.
"Dr. M-J Milloy will be Western Canada's first cannabis science professor at the University of British Columbia and the first professor in Canada focused on researching the role cannabis can play in the overdose crisis," Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy said in the announcement.
Between January and September, more than 1,100 people died from suspected opioid overdoses, according to the ministry.
Milloy will lead clinical trials to explore how cannabis can help people with opioid use disorders stay on their treatment plans, the ministry said.
Milloy's research has already shown that daily cannabis use has been linked to an increased likelihood that people will maintain treatment and to a lower risk of street-involved youth starting to inject drugs.
As a first step in the new position, Milloy said he wants to build on a preliminary study of 2,500 drug users in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. That study showed that individuals who were starting methadone or suboxone, which are the first-line therapies for opioid use disorder, were more than 20 per cent more likely to still be on treatment at the six month mark if they were using cannabis daily, he said.
"What we would like to do as a next step is test that association in a clinical trial," Milloy said.
Milloy has authored more than 150 peer-reviewed articles on how policy can affect health outcomes for people who use drugs.
Marijuana company Canopy Growth is contributing $2.5 million, while the province is paying $500,000 to UBC and the BC Centre on Substance Use for the position.
Dr. Dermot Kelleher, dean of UBC's faculty of medicine, said the university has established protocols to prevent conflicts of interest related to corporate-funded research.
Dr. Mark Ware, Canopy Growth's chief medical officer, said cannabis research has been limited by prohibition, which made it difficult to gather accurate information like prevalence and patterns of use because it was an illegal substance.
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Stigma around the drug has also bled into the academic realm and limited people from taking the science of cannabis seriously, said Ware, who is also former executive director of the non-profit Canadian Consortium for the Investigation of Cannabinoids and taught at McGill University's faculty of family medicine.
"For many reasons, it's been a challenging drug and will probably continue to be. This isn't ending overnight. We continue to face issues around the interpretation and importance of cannabis research, so I think we're at a turning point but we still have a long way to go," Ware said.
Dr. Evan Wood, director of the BC Centre on Substance Use and a professor at UBC faculty of medicine, said the research will help fill a void.
"This professorship not only represents a much needed step into an area of study that's been neglected as a result of prohibition, but is also a unique coming together of people across sectors to address a very urgent and pressing health issue affecting our country," Wood said.
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