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Pennsylvania Green Lights Medical Marijuana Research Program

July 4, 2019

The Pennsylvania Department of Health recently agreed to fund a medical marijuana research program that will enlist the help of state medical schools and licensed cannabis cultivators. Drexel University College of Medicine and Agronomed Biologics LLC, Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University and MLH Explorations LLC, and Penn State College of Medicine and PA Options for Wellness have partnered to explore the medical benefits and potential risks of medical marijuana.

Medical Marijuana Act

The Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf passed the Medical Marijuana Act more than three years ago. As part of the law, licensed cannabis cultivators would have the option to apply for a “clinical registrant” license to collaborate with one of the state’s medical schools, called an “academic clinical research center.” Those licensees who chose to work with Pennsylvania medical universities have a unique advantage in the medical marijuana industry,

Medical marijuana regulations in Pennsylvania mandate the cultivation operations and retail stores operate independently. However, cultivators that acquire a clinical registrant license are able to vertically integrate and open a medical marijuana dispensary that sells its own product. This not only increases the profit margin but also ensures that all products are tested for public consumption.

Vertically Integrated Dispensaries

Chair of Penn State’s Department of Pharmacology, Dr. Kent Vrana noted that, “[The state] provided a mechanism whereby these companies could become these super grower/processor/dispensers, but they had to do so in partnership with a medical school. There are nine medical schools in the commonwealth. Eight of the nine chose to go down this path, and we were one of them.”

The medical marijuana research program hit a road bump last year when the state rejected all of the applications for medical research citing that none met the required standards. Regulators open up the application process again earlier this year and eight schools received approval to conduct medical marijuana research. Afterwards, these medical schools began partnering with licensed cultivation companies and Penn State chose PA Options for Wellness.

Dr. Kent Vrana explained that, “We had selected them as our corporate partner about a year ago, and I’ve been working with their president, Tom Trite, to flesh out how our working relationship would work. What was most attractive about PA Options for us here at Penn State is that Tom is actually a trained pharmacist, and his former career was managing pharmacy programs for long-term health facilities. So, he gets the medical model.”

Medical Marijuana Research Program Trials

The Penn State College of Medicine will start by focussing their research on studying medical marijuana’s impact on pain and cancer. They plan to use animal and cell culture models to test which cannabinoids and CBD to THC ratios are the most effective in providing relief for certain medical conditions. While Pennsylvania regulators legalized smoking medical marijuana after an initial ban, Penn State will be working exclusively with concentrates. “I can’t do high-quality research with that material, but we’ll be focused on marijuana extracts,” Vrana stated.

This does not mean that Penn State will be dispensing the extracts to patients, and it will not acquire any products from PA Options, Vrana said. Instead, Penn State will facilitate the research in consultative and collaborative capacity providing dispensaries with survey instruments. However it could be anywhere from four to six months before PA Options is able to begin conduction clinical trials.

“Let’s just use as an example that somebody comes in [to the dispensary and] they’ve been approved for medical marijuana for chronic pain,” Vrana added. “They would come in and take a survey asking, ‘What is the level of pain right now, and what medications are you taking?’ They would get their marijuana extract, go off, and then when they come back to renew their … dispensation—which can only be done once a month—they would come back and take that same survey. The data would be entered into a database, and we would help PA Options monitor that database and mine it to find out what types of marijuana material are effective for pain.”