University of Toronto department of pharmacology and toxicology chair Ruth Ross said she has developed a molecule that eases pain similar to cannabis, but without the associated high.

“People have known for a long time that cannabis relieves pain,” said Ross. “Cannabinoids are particularly effective in some types of pain where opioids are sometimes less effective — like nerve pain.”

Ross said the issue with taking advantage of cannabis’s pain relief for medical patients is “minimizing the psychotropic side effects.”

“If you need to take a painkiller frequently for a chronic condition, these are a problem: cannabis affects short term memory and makes it harder to concentrate,” she said.

As part of a group of researchers, Ross developed a molecule that targets the body’s pain receptors. The team is now attempting to develop a new painkiller based on the molecule that could potentially be used, one day, as a replacement for other drugs.

“Opioids have problems with dependence, addiction and tolerance – the increasing need for more. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories [like Ibuprofen] have side effects like gastrointestinal distress,” said Ross. “There’s evidence that combining ultra-low doses of cannabis and opioids would be effective, without the addiction or tolerance issues. That would be a whole new type of treatment.”

Ross said if trials are successful, a new drug could be developed in in the next five to ten years for public use.