By Pamela Valentine, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada
I’m concerned about cannabis. I’m not concerned for the many reasons cited during the legalization process. I’m concerned because cannabis is being promoted by some as a viable treatment option for many serious health conditions – including multiple sclerosis – without enough clinical evidence supporting these claims. And, I’m concerned that Canadians will turn to recreational cannabis to self-medicate based on what they are hearing. Anecdotally, cannabis appears to offer some MS patients life-changing improvements, but we simply don’t know all the facts to draw solid, scientifically-proven conclusions. This is not good enough; especially when dealing with a complex disease like MS. That’s why the MS Society of Canada is calling on the cannabis industry to help us prove the efficacy of cannabis treatment by funding scientific, evidence-based research.
At the MS Society, we are regularly consulted on the adult use of medical cannabis. MS is a complex and unpredictable disease. Canada has one of the highest rates of MS in the world with 11 Canadians diagnosed with the disease every day, most often when people are in the prime of their lives. Currently, there is no cure. MS affects everyone differently and symptoms can include muscle spasms and stiffness (spasticity); chronic pain; fatigue; and loss of vision and mobility. The pain and feeling of helplessness these patients experience is excruciating. In a recent survey of people living with MS, almost all respondents – 90 per cent – have considered or used cannabis in the past to manage their symptoms. They are looking for relief and to bring more normalcy to their daily lives, and are asking the MS Society to invest time, effort and money into cannabis research. We are listening. We are acting. But we can’t do it alone.
We are listening. We are acting. But we can’t do it alone.
The development of safe, effective and accessible treatments for MS, including cannabis, is a top priority for the MS Society. We are advocating for medical cannabis to be treated like a prescription drug and not be taxed so it remains affordable. We have spoken with those living with MS and understand their needs for medical cannabis as a treatment option. And, we have funded studies into cannabis and its effects on MS symptoms, but results are mixed and, globally, there is simply not enough research to learn from. It is crucial that we do more, both here and around the world.
Yesterday, the MS Society announced our newest partnership with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to provide $1.5 million in funding for cannabis and MS research. It’s the first step in the right direction, and this five-year investment will really help to accelerate cannabis health research in MS.
We still have a long way to go. There is too much uncertainty about cannabis and its benefits as a treatment for MS. Plus, legalization has the potential to create new issues if Canadians purchase recreational cannabis to self-medicate for serious health conditions. This can be dangerous as there are many strains of cannabis, ways to administer it, and associated effects. Make no mistake: while they may be derived from the same plant, recreational and medical cannabis have very different uses and, just like MS symptoms, can affect every person differently. That’s why medical cannabis is available with medical supervision, and why we encourage and empower everyone living with MS to talk to their healthcare team before adding it to their treatment protocol.
The MS Society has a mandate to support those living with this disease, and we will continue to fund research. However, we also believe if the cannabis industry is profiting from patients, these companies have a responsibility to join the scientific community to conduct high-quality research to help people living with MS, their families, and healthcare teams make informed decisions regarding treatment options.
As a scientist, I am extremely optimistic about the potential of medical cannabis for the management of MS symptoms, but progress will only be made through research and innovation.
As a scientist, I am extremely optimistic about the potential of medical cannabis for the management of MS symptoms, but progress will only be made through research and innovation. This will involve many players working in tandem. The MS Society encourages the cannabis industry, and the research community to join our cause and help us open new doors to immediate patient care and future studies so we can help those living with MS to live well.
To read more about the MS Society’s partnership with CIHR and to learn more about funding opportunities visit: https://bit.ly/2U4WrwD
Pamela Valentine is the president and chief executive officer of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada. Dr. Valentine is a published research scientist that has been awarded the Canadian Psychological Association of Excellence and the Neuroscience Canada Foundation Award.
 Cofield, S. S. et al. Perspectives on marijuana use and effectiveness: A survey of NARCOMS participants. Neurol. Clin. Pract. 7, 333–343 (2017).