After a fitful start, Pennsylvania’s efforts to encourage scientific research into the effects of medical marijuana appeared to be back on track with the Wolf Administration’s recent certification of eight universities and colleges as “Academic Clinical Research Centers.”
The move gives a green light to institutions performing research into the effects of medical marijuana, with the potential for exponential expansion in the vastly underpopulated world of medical marijuana research, long hampered by federal restrictions on the growth and sale of marijuana for clinical use.
Pennsylvania had originally certified the same eight institutions in May 2018, but quickly, the effort hit a snag. With process revisions in place, the repeat round of approvals announced on Sept. 21 signals “the next step in moving towards clinical research of medical marijuana occurring in the Commonwealth,” according to a Pennsylvania Department of Health news release.
“The research component of Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program sets it apart from the rest of the nation,” said Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine. “Pennsylvania’s premiere medical schools will be able to help shape the future of treatment for patients not just here, but across the country. These are patients suffering from serious medical conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and opioid use disorder.”
Under state law, each ACRC must be an accredited medical school within Pennsylvania, operating or partnering with an acute care hospital. Those criteria narrow down the list to eight qualifying institutions, and all eight received ACRC certification in the new pronouncement:
- Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia.
- Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, Philadelphia.
- Penn State College of Medicine, Hershey.
- Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson University’s Institute of Emerging Health Professions is home to the Lambert Center for the Study of Medical Cannabis and Hemp, devoted in part to research into the evidence base for cannabinoid therapy.
- The Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
- University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh.
- Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, Erie.
- Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Philadelphia.
Under guidelines developed in state law, ACRCs must contract with “clinical registrants,” or CRs, that grow and process medical cannabis. While medical institutions design the research and collect data, those CRs – which can operate up to six of their own dispensaries – enlist patients for the studies.
That privileged relationship drew the ire of opponents during the first, scuttled round of approvals. A group of licensed grower/processors under the state’s regular licensing process, which caps dispensaries at three, claimed that the CRs would have a competitive advantage. They also argued, in a lawsuit filed against the state, that CRs had a conflict of interest between selling medical cannabis and researching its effectiveness.
The lawsuit sent the state legislature back to the drawing board, and an amendment to the 2016 Medical Marijuana Act required CRs to obtain commercial permits. The Health Department has not yet announced those permittees.
More than 70,000 patients in Pennsylvania have registered to participate in the medical marijuana program, with 44,000 of them certified for the program, according to the Pennsylvania Health Department. More than 1,200 physicians have registered, and nearly 800 of them have been approved as practitioners.