Medical Marijuana Researchers Playing Catch Up After Legalization In PA

Apr 21, 2016

Researchers are now trying to play catch up, after Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill approving medical marijuana in Pennsylvania.
Credit Cannabis Pictures / Flickr

It could take up to 24 months for the state of Pennsylvania to set up a system for regulating and dispensing medical marijuana. In the meantime, patients who want to use cannabis as medicine do so at their own risk, according to researchers studying the issue.

Marcel Bonn-Miller is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently studying how cannabis use affects people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“This policy comes out now in so many states where we really have zero science to back it up for many of the conditions that are listed,” he said. “It’s a game of catch-up.”

Bonn-Miller said the results of his research on PTSD probably won’t be finalized for another three years, well after Pennsylvania physicians can begin recommending marijuana to their patients. Federal law prohibits doctors from “prescribing” medical cannabis, rather they will “recommend it.”

“For the last 20 or 30 years as physicians we’re telling our patients that we want to practice in an evidence-based environment, that the medications or treatment we provide have evidence in the literature and the research that support their use for a particular problem,” said Todd Baron, medical director of WellSpan Neurosicences. “This is sort of the cart before the horse, where there’s now a drug or drugs available as legislated by the state and we don’t have the research to back it up for many of the conditions.”

The dearth of scientific evidence on the effects of marijuana is due in part to its status as a federal Schedule 1 narcotic. The Drug Enforcement Agency defines Schedule 1 drugs as those that have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Researchers must get permission from the DEA in order to study it.

Barron is studying a purified form of cannabidiol, or CBD, which is a non-psychoactive ingredient found in marijuana. He said if CBD is found to be effective in treating severe forms of epilepsy, the DEA would have to reschedule it, which would make research easier.

Another issue, said Bonn-Miller, is that some of the medical marijuana products sold in other states are mislabeled with regards to how much of the active ingredients they contain.

A report published last June in the Journal of American Medicine showed that most products contained less THC and CBD than indicated, but some contained more, which Bonn-Miller called “pretty scary.”

The Pennsylvania Medical Society has not yet established guidelines for doctors regarding the recommendation of medical marijuana.