Uncovering the Truth About Medical Cannabis
Education and Advocacy Two world-class researchers shed some light on what we know about cannabis today.
Dr. Ramesh Zacharias is the Medical Director of the Michael G. DeGroote Pain Clinic, one of the largest academic pain clinics in Canada. Dr. Jennifer Brasch is the Lead of Addictions Psychiatry at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton. Both are closely involved with the Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research, which uses an interdisciplinary approach to better understand the benefits and risks associated with medical cannabis.
“Our portfolio of work with the Centre now includes 12 projects,” says Dr. Zacharias. “Our team of researchers has begun a data registry, called DATACANN, which will monitor clinical outcomes and determine how to predict the benefits and harms of cannabis as a prescribed treatment for specific conditions.”
To date, 17 clinics are involved with DATACANN, and over the next year, they anticipate they will start to collect data on 1,000 patients. It’s the first clinical monitoring program of this magnitude, and a huge step toward the Centre’s ultimate goal of demystifying medical cannabis.
Cannabis and pain management
One of the Centre’s primary research areas is pain management, and given his expertise, Dr. Zacharias is very involved in the Centre’s work with chronic pain sufferers.
“There is a theory that people with chronic pain aren’t producing enough endocannabinoids, which play a role in our immune system and are also present in cannabis,” he says. “By studying endocannabinoids, we can see if, like insulin for people with diabetes, we might be able to replace this deficiency for those with chronic pain or other conditions.”
A randomized study focusing on the potential benefits of medical cannabis for total knee replacement patients is also in development. In addition, researchers are working to better understand the many different psychoactive components of the cannabis plant. This research could identify specific chemicals that have potential medicinal effects, and determine if they can be isolated for use in clinical trials.
Exploring the link between cannabis and mental health
Another one of the Centre’s key research areas is addiction and mental health, which is Dr. Jennifer Brasch’s area of expertise. She treats patients with addiction and psychiatric illnesses often, and has seen first-hand the harm that cannabis and substance abuse can cause. Her research is focused on determining when medical cannabis should be prescribed to patients with pre-existing mental illness, if at all.
“Cannabis is being prescribed for mental health conditions when we do not have sufficient evidence that it’s helpful. I’ve seen patients prescribed quantities that may impair, not enhance, their mental state,” she says. “It’s so important that we conduct unbiased research that will help patients and clinicians better understand if medical cannabis can benefit people with psychiatric conditions.” She concedes there are huge unknowns for cannabis and physical conditions, but even more so for psychiatric conditions.
“There’s just so much we don’t know, and that’s why the DeGroote Centre exists,” she says. “At the end of the day, we just want to discover as much as we can.”