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A budding cannabis research cluster in Fredericton

The city’s two universities create new research chairs related to cannabis.

By BRIAN OWENS | SEP 22 2017

A new research cluster will soon be sparking to life in Fredericton as the city’s two universities each begin their search for a researcher to fill a new chair in cannabis research, reportedly the first two such chairs in the country.

St. Thomas University’s new chair will focus on the social impact of cannabis, both as a medicinal and recreational drug, while the University of New Brunswick’s chair will tackle the pharmacology and biochemistry of cannabis.

The announcement of the two chairs within months of each other was not a coincidence. Both were the brainchild of Bruno Battistini, chief executive officer and scientific director of the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation, an arm’s-length government-funded body tasked with promoting health research in the province. The development of the cannabis industry is part of the government’s growth plan, and research is an important aspect of that, he says.

“We’re trying to do the science behind the impact of legalization and pharmaceutical development, to make sure we have the proper data and analysis,” Dr. Battistini says. “We want to bring order to where right now there is chaos.”

NBHRF is providing $500,000 over five years for each chair, with two private-sector partners each chipping in another $500,000 – the pharmacy chain Shoppers Drug Mart at St. Thomas and the pharmaceutical company Tetra Bio-Pharma at UNB.

Michael Dawson, associate vice-president, research, at St. Thomas, says the chair plays to the university’s strengths in the social sciences and the humanities, and is a good opportunity for the university to help inform government policy on a complex moral and legal issue. “We’ll focus on what governments ought to be thinking about – and worrying about – given what’s going to happen with legalization,” he says.

Dr. Dawson adds that he is pleased that the societal aspects of cannabis are getting just as much attention as the medical side. “It’s an exciting recognition that the social sciences have a major role to play in an important public policy issue,” he says. “It helps the university make a tangible contribution to the broader community.”

Dr. Dawson says the university expects to have a researcher in place by July 1 of next year, the date set for the legalization of cannabis across the country.

David MaGee, acting vice-president for research at UNB, says the new chair is an opportunity for the university to build on its expertise in health-related research and to support the government’s plans to develop a cannabis industry in New Brunswick. “The government has made it clear that the cannabis industry is something that it is backing, and the university is trying to support that any way we can,” he says.

Although the research focus of the two chairs is quite different, Dr. MaGee sees opportunities for collaboration between the universities, which are both located in the same downtown neighbourhood. “It’s not uncommon for our faculty to collaborate on projects,” he says. “They will have different areas of focus, but perhaps we can both combine our expertise with other players in the industry.”

Another research group at the University of Moncton working on agricultural hemp also provides further opportunities for collaboration, adds Dr. Battistini. “These expertise hubs will bring benefits not just to New Brunswick, but across Canada as well,” he says.

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