December 3, 2015 9:52 pm

Stigma a barrier to medical cannabis research, advocates say at roundtable

Marijuana plants with their buds covered in white crystals called trichomes, are a few weeks away from harvest at the Ataraxia medical marijuana cultivation center in Albion, Ill., on Sept. 15, 2015.

Seth Perlman/AP
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VANCOUVER – When Jonathan Zaid turned 18, his mom gave him an unusual birthday present – one that would turn out to be life-changing.

Zaid had been diagnosed at 14 with a pain syndrome that caused constant, daily headaches. He tried dozens of prescription medications and even had to drop out of school for two years.

Then his mother bought him a marijuana joint.

“I tried it and it helped a bit,” he said. “But I really struggled with sources of access. Physicians were leery to give it to someone that young.”

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Zaid, now 22, is the founder and executive director of Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana. His group is among those attending a national roundtable on medical cannabis hosted by The Arthritis Society in Vancouver.

Medical marijuana has been available in Canada for over a decade, but there’s a surprising lack of scientific research to guide doctors and patients, advocates say. The goal of the conference, which ends Friday, is to set research priorities.

The stigma attached to cannabis is one big reason for the absence of studies, Zaid said.

“I think that goes back to the research, where people just aren’t necessarily familiar with medical cannabis and view it through the lens of that stoner-type image.”

Arthritis Society chief mission officer Joanne Simons agreed that negative stereotypes have led to a lack of research, which in turn makes doctors wary of prescribing cannabis.

“Somebody who’s 67 years old, to have a conversation with their kids about, ‘I want to try medical cannabis,’ there’s stigma associated with that,” she said.

“We really need to break that down, to really understand the root causes. People are living in pain. They don’t have effective pain management. And this may be one area that could help them.”

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Jason McDougall, a pain researcher with Dalhousie University, said anecdotal evidence and laboratory studies have shown marijuana helps alleviate the pain and fatigue of arthritis.

But a lack of funding has hindered scientists interested in understanding cannabis and its effects on various diseases, he said.

“I think the federal government needs to give more funding to research in general, but in particular it would be nice to see more dollars coming towards cannabis research.”

The former Conservative government often said that marijuana was not an approved drug and it did not condone its use. Advocates are hopeful that the new Liberal government push to legalize recreational pot will also change the landscape for medical cannabis, potentially freeing up more funding.

Health Canada, a participant in the conference, was unable to comment before deadline.

Zaid said cannabis isn’t a “miracle drug,” but it has helped ease his pain and helped him lead a full life, including studying at the University of Waterloo and becoming a patient advocate.

And his mom is proud.

“She’s really happy that I’m doing well,” he said. “That was the reason why she gave me that joint in the first place. So she’s happy to see that it’s launched me into this and allowed me to really live a good life.”

© 2015 The Canadian Press

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