From marijuana's potential benefits for HIV patients to MDMA and LSD’s healing potential for people suffering from PTSD, depression and other psychological disorders UBC scientists are doing more and more research pointing into the world of illicit drugs.
But speaking to researchers who have spent their careers trying to fill in the knowledge gaps in drugs like marijuana, psychedelics and heroin, two challenges continue to stand as imposing roadblocks: money and stigma.
“[It’s] a line of scientific inquiry that’s essentially laid dormant for decades,” UBC professor Evan Wood, a Canada Research Chair in Inner City Medicine, told the Ubyssey. “There’s been a small, committed group of scientists internationally that have slowly been trying to keep this area of science alive.”
Funding is “competitive and difficult,” said Jon Page, a geneticist and UBC adjunct professor in the Department of Botany studying cannabis, “and when you start saying we need more money to put in security measures and we have all these licensing [regulations], it adds complications to any project,” making it less desirable for potential funders.
As for stigma, few can speak to such challenges better than Eugenia Oveido-Joekes, an associate professor with the UBC’s School of Population and Public Health.
As a researcher renowned for her work on studies such the Study to Assess Long-term Opioid Maintenance Effectiveness (SALOME), she has dealt with more than her fair share of run-ins with the bureaucracy that so often plague such studies. The SALOME study examined the effects of prescribing heroin in specific forms to chronically addicted heroin patients who had not responded to other forms of treatment.
“Nobody wants to hear this bad news: people are going to use drugs,” Oveido-Joekes said, with a broken, humourless laugh. “People use drugs. Period. I don’t want it, I don’t like it, but they do. So everybody’s looking for the research that’s going to bring the vaccine that’s going to stop everybody injecting heroin or injecting cocaine in the streets.”
"But when they see who we are they send me an email saying, since this is a vulnerable topic and controversial topic, we want to review this on full board," O-J recalled, referring to a more thorough review process. "So in that moment I say, really? When is this going to end?”
The stigma and funding challenges have serious repercussions for public health, Wood said, explaining that the prohibition has forced most research towards more traditional pharmaceutical drugs.
“That hasn’t been a particularly fruitful endeavour from a healing perspective,” Wood lamented, saying that scientists have struggled in treating people suffering from depression, addiction and other maladies with the legal drugs currently available.
The prohibitions and the resulting stigma surrounding illicit drugs, influenced in part by past unethical research – Project MKUltra, for example, codename for the infamously unethical tests with LSD carried out by the US military in the 1960s – has led to a blind spot in drug research.
As an undergraduate student at UBC in 1971, Denis Doyle, now 63, experienced such questionable research first-hand as a participant in a government experiment on the effects of marijuana on driving based out of Point Grey.
“You would smoke a cigarette and you wouldn’t know what was in it, whether it was placebo or marijuana itself,” said Doyle of these experiments. “Then they’d follow you out to the car… and then they had an obstacle course set up with cones.”
Doyle said that he later suspected the results of the study – that marijuana did not have a seriously detrimental impact on driving – had been suppressed.
Researchers say some of the stigma surrounding drug research stems from those studies decades ago.
“When they’re being portrayed in a way that brings back the fears of the 1970s... then you could still touch a nerve with some people. But that’s just not the reality,” Wood said.
Now, with proper ethical controls available in place and a search for serious medical treatment at stake, scientists are still frustrated with the lack of research that has been done in the intervening years.
“There’s still this knowledge gap,” said Page. For him cannabis is “fertile ground” for study, given the few resources being dedicated to learning its effects.
“There’s all these questions that haven’t been answered…. Society is still coming to grips with its uses as a medicinal plant,” he said.
The search for answers also drives M-J Milloy, an assistant professor at UBC, in his research on medical marijuana. “We need to answer the question,” said Milloy. “Is this of medical benefit or not?”
As the public conversation around illicit drugs and the mental health issues they may be able to treat slowly opens up, researchers like Oveido-Joekes, Milloy, Wood, Page and others who de-mystify such drugs see new hope in dealing with already-stigmatized illnesses such as depression, PTSD, HIV and addiction.
In this context Page and Milloy are both optimistic, a relatively recent phenomenon. The field has “totally changed in the sense that people now phone me up and say ‘Hey, how can we work together?’” said Page, whereas formerly he was viewed as a loner on the fringe of academia.
For his part, Milloy recently received a major grant from NG Biomed to start clinical trials on medical marijuana. In a world where funding for research in any field is cutthroat and competitive, the grant is incredibly encouraging for those studying illegal drugs.
“In Vancouver and at UBC we should be pleased that there are these scientists who are doing the work in order to try and adapt the common good, and see if in fact these [drugs] can provide health benefits to the people who need them,” said Milloy. “Keep in mind we’re talking about HIV and addiction which take a terrible toll on people, which we can see every day in the streets of Vancouver and I think we’re fortunate in Vancouver that people are looking to these drugs as … agents that could benefit people…. I think students should be really excited to be in an institution [like UBC] that supports this.”
Still, things are not changing fast enough for people like Oveido-Joekes and the struggles she and her colleagues face mean society may lose valuable minds in the fight to close the knowledge gap and change the paradigm of pervasive problems like medicating mental illnesses and HIV.
“The other day somebody comes and says to me, ‘now that SALOME is over, we need people like you doing research in psychedelics!’” said Oveido-Joekes, who estimates 95 per cent of her work on the heroin trial was ensuring the study precisely followed government regulations, and only five per cent on actually doing the research. “And I look at him and I say ‘are you crazy? I can’t wait to not be doing this anymore. I’m done. I’m exhausted of going against the system. I’m exhausted.’”