Feds announce $1.4-million for marijuana research projects

Young Canadians have long arrived at university campuses across the country and embraced cannabis, but no one really knows how using the drug affects parts of their life such as their grades, class attendance or the amount of alcohol they drink. Details are even hazy on how many people are getting high during this formative time in their lives.

That’s why Zach Walsh, a clinical psychologist and cannabis researcher, is planning a long-term study of roughly 500 students at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus starting this semester, which ends in April, months before the drug is legalized by Ottawa this summer.

Dr. Walsh is one of 14 academics awarded a combined total of $1.4-million by the federal government Wednesday to complete a wide range of cannabis research projects aimed at helping Canadians understand the impact of the country’s new pot laws.

His study will also examine attitudes toward the drug and could change long-held beliefs among young adults, who consume cannabis in Canada at higher rates than almost any other nation in the world, he said.

“Everyone overestimates peer use and tends to think that cannabis is more prevalent, that other students are using cannabis more frequently and in greater quantities than they actually are,” he said. “We want to see if the norms come more into line with reality now that it’s an open conversation – or a more open conversation.”

Bill Blair, the MP who has acted as the government’s point person on cannabis legislation, announced the research funding Wednesday at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). The projects, based out of hospitals and universities across the country, will each receive a $100,000 grant from the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) .

“We acknowledge the need to expand our knowledge when it comes to the health effects of cannabis, as well as the behavioural, social and economic implications of its legalization and regulation,” he said.

In 2016, the government published a report acknowledging a lack of comprehensive, high-quality research about the public health effects of cannabis, Mr. Blair noted. He said that more comprehensive research was much more difficult under prohibition. Last month, Canada’s foremost cannabis academic had called on Ottawa to create a new independent body to organize and prioritize the diverse array of cannabis research, but the Health Minister has said these studies are properly directed through the country’s three research councils.

Sergio Rueda, a CAMH researcher who received one of the grants, said his team will examine how cannabis legalization affects diverse communities in four provinces – including Indigenous and racialized communities. He said he hopes his research will help inform the development of new government policies and refine existing policies.

Another project outlined on Wednesday will examine how cannabis use changes once it’s legalized and will evaluate the provincial governments’ regulatory models for cannabis policies.

Vancouver-Kingsway MP Don Davies, federal NDP critic for health, said the Liberal government’s infusion of funding is a positive, but said tens of millions of dollars are needed to begin answering the many questions posed by legalization.

“Of the many casualties of criminalization, its impact on suppressing research is one of the worst,” said Mr. Davies, whose party has supported decriminalization of cannabis since the 1970s. “Everybody from every side of the spectrum on this – even for people opposed to legalization – I think you’d find broad agreement that we need much more information on the impacts of cannabis on health, the workplace, to inform different policy approaches.

“If only to confirm what a lot of people already hypothesize.”

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