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University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine explores medical marijuana research

April 2, 2018

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine want to study the safety and efficacy of using medical marijuana to treat diseases.

The potential for state-supported research is growing even though marijuana remains federally classified as a Schedule 1 illegal substance with no medically approved applications.

The state Department of Health last week outlined a process for an accredited medical school with an acute care hospital to become an approved “Academic Clinical Research Center.” The end goal is to provide more evidence-based research and ultimately help the patient.

The health department is expected to approve up to eight registrants, all of whom must have at least $15 million in capital.

Pennsylvania was the first state to write a research component into its medical marijuana law. Approved registrants must begin an approved research project six months after receiving state approval.

“The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine has been actively engaged with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to develop these temporary regulations under which academic clinical research centers can conduct research with medical cannabis products,” the medical school said in a statement Tuesday. “It is important to note that Pennsylvania is the first and only state in the country to institute such a program, and we believe that the research will be of great importance in determining the safety and efficacy of medical cannabis products in treating specific diseases. Specific research efforts will be determined once the regulations are finalized and the application process begins with the Department of Health,” the statement said.

Participating medical schools and hospitals will require a partner to grow, process and dispense medical marijuana separate from the current licensees in the program. State law says that any patient issued a medical marijuana card could be asked to participate in a study, but the patient has the right to decline.

Earlier this month, health giant UPMC created new guidelines for its doctors interested in certifying patients for medical marijuana treatment.

Patrick Nightingale, executive director of the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society, said additional research is needed to service patients.

“Cannabis has a Schedule 1 status, and that makes it difficult for coordinated research,” he said. “We need research centers to reach our goal of effectively serving the patient population.”

In Pennsylvania, patients — after consulting with a doctor — can apply for a state-issued medical marijuana card if they have one of 17 qualified medical conditions including cancer, seizure disorders and multiple sclerosis.

Patients who receive a card may purchase medical marijuana from an authorized state-licensed medical marijuana dispensary. Dispensaries also are allowed to sell equipment, such as vaping devices for liquid forms, to administer medical marijuana.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed a medical marijuana bill into law in April 2016. Medical marijuana in Pennsylvania will be available in pills, oils, tinctures or ointments. The Health Department is regulating the program, which forbids smoking marijuana in dry leaf form.

Suzanne Elliott is a Tribune-Review staff writer, She can be reached at 412-871-2346, selliott@tribweb.com or via Twitter @41Suzanne.

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