Eight medical schools, including the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, have been approved by the state to do clinical research on medical marijuana, Gov. Tom Wolf announced this week.
The move is an important one, advocates say, because of how federal drug laws have hindered research into the medical benefits of cannabis over the years.
The state’s Department of Health chose the schools as Certified Research Centers in a competitive process, said J.J. Abbott, a spokesperson for the governor.
“The goal here is to get the process started today so that these eight institutions can start looking at how medical marijuana helps patients, and hopefully it will lead to more and better outcomes for patients in the future,” Abbott said.
“Pennsylvania’s premiere medical schools will be able to help shape the future of treatment for patients who are in desperate need not just here, but across the country,” said Wolf.
Pitt's School of Medicine wrote in a statement: "We believe that the research that will be conducted by the School of Medicine in collaboration with UPMC will be of great importance in determining the safety, efficacy and effectiveness of medical cannabis products in treating specific diseases."
In its statement, school officials said Pennsylvania is the first and only state to implement a certified research program of this kind.
The federal government classifies marijuana as Schedule 1 drug, alongside heroin, LSD and cocaine. That label has prevented federal dollars from flowing to research institutions, said Patrick Nightingale, a Pittsburgh-based advocate for reforming marijuana laws, and executive director of the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society.
That in turn has prevented marijuana from being more widely used as medicine, Nightingale said.
“A lot of information about the medical efficacy of cannabis is anecdotal,” he said. “Patients describing their experiences, giving their feedback, and I think that our medical professionals want a little bit more if not a lot more in terms of dosing data. You know what products are working for what types of conditions.”
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been hostile to liberalized laws on marijuana. But Abbott said Tuesday that the state’s medical-marijuana law, signed by Wolf in 2016, will protect the research institutions in the commonwealth.
“Everything that these institutions will do going forward will be within the confines of state law, and they’ll be protected under state law to do that,” Abbott said.
Other schools certified include the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University; the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania; the Drexel University College of Medicine; Penn State College of Medicine, in Hershey; Sidney Kimmel Medical College, at Thomas Jefferson University, in Philadelphia; Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, in Erie; and the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
The certification announcement coincides this week with new temporary regulations taking effect that expand the number of medical conditions for which medical marijuana is an approved treatment. These include terminal illness, neurodegenerative diseases and opioid-use disorder.