Medical cannabis research in Jamaica ambles on

Ellen
Campbell Grizzle

Thursday, August 22, 2019

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It was Professor Manley West, the godfather of medical cannabis research in Jamaica, who got the ball rolling with little fanfare or external financial support for his work. He was a quiet, amiable, yet driven person. A “steady as it goes” type of individual who kept his head down and got the work done.

He was an ardent night fisherman and learnt from the fishers that smoking cannabis enhanced their ability to “see the fish run”. His research of this claim led to the development of Canasol. In the same vein, Asmasol was developed based on the local knowledge that cannabis was used to treat asthma. Professor West trusted the scientific method and through rigorous laboratory work and limited human trials developed products from cannabis. Dr Diane Robertson, another pioneer in this field, also gives tribute to the indigenous people for the knowledge that she gained about Jamaica's medicinal plants and their uses.

In 2004, when Professor West accepted the Caribbean Association of Pharmacist's Peer Award for Research, I got a glimpse of his determination and an understanding of the struggle to bring Canasol and Asmasol to the market in the 1980s. Then, Professor West shared his successful effort to hold on to the intellectual property involved in the development of the two products, despite immense pressure from big pharmaceutical industry players to pry the information from him.

He was a pioneer in a country that at the time had little respect for indigenous knowledge. Also, as a Jamaican scientist of the 50s and 60s, he recalled well the Periwinkle debacle and how Jamaica lost the wealth associated with the discovery of effective cancer drugs from that plant. Despite all of these challenges, Professor West was optimistic and felt that it was important to keep the eyes on the right ball. These are lessons that I have never forgotten.

The road travelled

At this point, research in the field of medical cannabis is low key, but ambling on. Secrecy abounds as lack of trust remains pervasive. Cultivators are testing interesting cultivars while health care providers, on a very small scale, are developing customised formulae and products for grateful patients. I have been asked with great frequency to give opinions on the lotions, creams, rubbings, extracts, and oils that Jamaicans are making with the hope of a “breakthrough”.

In the laboratory space, flowers and oils are being tested for potency and the presence or absence of contaminating organisms and heavy metals. Investors are leasing land and building out facilities for extraction primarily for export. There is sacramental and recreational use. The Ministry of Health and Wellness is permitting the importation of finished products that make few if any clinical claims. Amidst this, is the often repeated and contested trope that Jamaica has fallen far behind the rest of the world in the field of medical cannabis research and will be left behind.

So, some people are trying a “ting” or a “hustle”. In the midst of all of this, patients are desperately seeking treatment for various conditions. A few health care providers, including pharmacists, are trying to upgrade their knowledge about safe and effective ways to use cannabis to treat specific ailments. And, in the tradition of Professor Manley West, dedicated local researchers are trundling on regardless without fanfare, financial support, or national regard. I feel as if we are on the cusp of an evanescent boom in which there are concentric circles of activity that will bust right open in the near to midterm.

The storm before the calm

In the current situation, we are buffeted by a local and international cacophony of agenda and interests. It seems chaotic. However, in my view, it is the storm before the calm. The survivors of the next phase of the medical cannabis industry in Jamaica will be the winners. When all else dwindles, it will be the science-based, innovative products and medicines that we develop in Jamaica which will remain to benefit our communities, the nation, and the globe.

So, in the narrow research space that is permitted currently, let us put the science to use to refine those customised products or use science to build on indigenous knowledge. There are interesting cultivars out there to be tested. Let us make sure that we learn the lessons from the past to avoid another Periwinkle debacle. Professor West did it, and so can we: Keep our eyes on the research ball and get things done. Do the “dance a yaad” before the time to “dance abraad” is upon us.

Ellen Campbell Grizzle, PhD, RPh, is associate professor in the College of Health Sciences, University of Technology, Jamaica. Send comments to the Observer or Ellen.Grizzle@utech.edu.jm.


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