When Charles Pollack created a marijuana research center in 2016 at Thomas Jefferson University, his idea was considered visionary.
It was a chance to fashion Philadelphia into a global hub for marijuana education and innovation, and would help drive Pennsylvania’s ambitions to become the “Silicon Valley” of cannabis research.
Three years later, the center is a shambles.
Pollack, the founder, was forced to resign in April after he self-reported that he had sexually harassed a female subordinate. He had sent her amorous emails and slipped notes under her door, overwhelming her with unwanted attention, according to documents reviewed by The Inquirer. She rebuffed all his advances.
His departure set in motion a series of changes and revelations that have tarnished the university’s reputation and threatened the future of his creation: the Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and Hemp.
A chorus of detractors, from former employees to key donors and leading marijuana researchers, are calling the center’s implosion “a tragedy" and "a disaster.”
Former advisers accuse the center and Jefferson of ethical lapses completely unrelated to Pollack’s personal foibles.
Pollack held lavish conferences, gave a key contract to a friend who never delivered, and grew uncomfortably close to industry.
Then after his departure, the center revoked two research grants with elite institutions that shattered its credibility in the research community.
“They’ve squandered and p---ed off the entire cannabinoid community,” said Marcel Bonn-Miller, who served as the Lambert Center’s research director until June.
Critics say the center’s close relationship with its primary benefactor’s firm, an international hemp corporation called Ecofibre, has left it open to accusations that the Lambert Center had become little more than a research arm of that company.
“The potential was there for them to be at the forefront of the most important [medical] trials in the world,” said Sue Sisley, a prominent researcher in Arizona who had served on the Lambert advisory committee. “I hear scientists are concerned they’ve become hacks for Ecofibre.” The company, she said, now calls the shots about the center’s mission and research.
Jefferson administrators maintain that the Lambert Center has only undergone a necessary change in direction to position itself for the future.
“Change can be hard for people,” said John Brand, the university’s vice president of communications. “This happens all the time in hospitals, as well as in other businesses.”
After Pollack left, Jefferson appointed Rajesh Aggarwal, a Jefferson bariatric surgeon who had no prior cannabis expertise, to become Lambert’s interim director. He fired the paid staff of four people in May without consulting the center’s advisory committee. Then he dismissed those advisers, dismantling a who’s who of international marijuana researchers and entrepreneurs.
Aggarwal, citing budget concerns, revoked grants that Pollack had earlier promised to renowned cannabis scientists. “That never happens,” said Bonn-Miller. “Those contracts were negotiated, submitted, and approved. They were registered on clinicaltrials.gov. Then they say, ‘Hey! We’ve decided not to fund it.’ ”
Jefferson said it was under no contractual obligation to honor those grants.
The Lambert Center is recruiting a new director of research, an associate director, and an administrative assistant, Brand said. Its mission now is narrower than originally conceived, focusing on the impact of cannabis on patients with chronic diseases such as dementia, autism, and opiate-use disorder.
On May 15, WJLA-TV in Washington D.C. reported that a CBD product had tested positive for toxic concentrations of lead. The CBD product -- produced by Ananda Hemp, a subsidiary of Ecofibre -- was being used in a Lambert Center-sponsored observational study.
After checking with Ecofibre, Jefferson’s leaders found the TV report unreliable. The original testing laboratory had been unwilling to provide details, they said, and several previous tests had found no problems. The Jefferson Institutional Review Board, which functions as an independent body, allowed the study to continue.
That lead episode was a deal-breaker for Bonn-Miller, who wanted the center to spend $5,000 for an analysis on the Ananda tincture to ensure that the product was not tainted.
“I was alarmed,” said Bonn-Miller, now the global clinical scientific director for Canopy Growth, the Canadian cannabis giant. “Additional tests were absolutely warranted. It was an issue of patient safety in an ongoing study. Reassurance from the company is clearly not sufficient.”
Jefferson sells the Ananda Hemp CBD tincture on its Marcus Insitute website. Jefferson also owns a small stake in Ecofibre, records show.
He and his colleagues also were irked by the revoked grants — one, a $200,000 project slated for Johns Hopkins University, was to look at the effects of THC and CBD on anxiety; the second $200,000 grant was for a UCLA study on the effects of THC on pain.
The whole situation "has presented a real challenge for the university,” said Lindy Snider, a former Lambert board member, donor, and cannabis entrepreneur.
Snider said she’s more disappointed than angry, believing that Jefferson squandered the chance to be a trailblazer in the world of weed. The Lambert Center was the first of its kind, she said. Harvard University and UCLA and others created similar centers for the study of cannabis.
Snider also worries that the Lambert Center’s priorities have shifted. “I don’t fault a university for finding ways of becoming profitable,” she said. "All of them have tech-transfer departments. But it appears that Lambert’s focus has moved from health and medicine to become an R&D arm for Ecofibre. I’m waiting to see how this shakes out.”
John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, a centrist think tank in Washington, served on the Lambert advisory board and taught at Lambert’s graduate education center.
He followed Bonn-Miller’s resignation with a fiery shot of his own.
“Recent events and decisions have demonstrated for me that a lack of commitment to science, teaching, and ethics, have put the Center and those associated with it in a troubling place,” wrote Hudak on June 14.
“I feel that recent decisions, paired with a total lack of consultation with the steering committee, places each of our reputations in jeopardy.”
A confident and charismatic physician who hailed from Alabama, Pollack had been chairman of the emergency department at Pennsylvania Hospital for over a decade before he was courted in 2015 to become Jefferson’s director for the Institute for Emerging Health Professions.
After attending a speech by cannabis researcher David Casarett in 2016, Pollack pitched Stephen Klasko, CEO of Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals Inc., on the idea of creating the world’s leading institute for cannabis education and research despite the fact that Pollack had never run a large research enterprise.
Jefferson’s board of directors were already enthusiastic backers of cannabis science. Several Jefferson board members -- including former chair William Landman and current chair Mark Alderman -- had spearheaded efforts to legalize medical marijuana in Pennsylvania and had been instrumental in the creation of the law that gave birth to the state’s first-of-its-kind medical marijuana research program.
After Pollack was named the center’s inaugural director, he soon amassed a group of scientists and entrepreneurs with enough bona fides to be the envy of the cannabis world.
He was skilled at trawling for money.
Pollack’s biggest catch was a $3 million donation in 2016 from the Australian hemp entrepreneur Barry Lambert, a “rich lister” who had made his fortune banking Down Under and had segued into a second career in cannabis. In return for the donation, Jefferson named the center in honor of Lambert. He gave Jefferson an additional $2 million after Pollack departed.
Pollack has a history of cultivating close ties with the pharmaceutical industry. He personally received $208,000 and $213,000 in 2015 and 2016 from drug firms, according to ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs database, which tracks industry payments to physicians.
Pollack and his staff took a similar approach at Lambert, aggressively targeting aspiring marijuana producers who desperately wanted to operate in Pennsylvania’s heavily regulated market. Their donations arrived in $125,000 chunks. By contributing to Lambert, they thought it would ensure them a permit to grow and sell cannabis products in the Keystone State. When that didn’t happen, some donors cried foul, saying they were misled by Pollack and his lieutenants.
Additionally, Pollack contracted with a close associate, Alex Frost, to produce a database of 100,000 marijuana patients. Such databases are considered extremely helpful for making discoveries and are expensive to assemble. After trumpeting the project, Pollack made a down payment of $150,000 to Massachusetts-based ioVita, a company run by Frost.
The database was never delivered, according to Bonn-Miller. When Pollack left, he joined the board of ioVita, according to the company’s website. Alex Frost did not return calls requesting comment. Jefferson has asked for the money back, said Brand.
To impress his donors and advisory board, Pollack sank hundreds of thousands of dollars into lavish conferences at the Union League of Philadelphia. One three-day conference at the venerable club, where Pollack was a member, cost the Lambert Center more than $300,000, said Jefferson insiders. Barry Lambert and other Ecofibre officers flew in from Australia to participate in the events.
Aggarwal, Pollack’s successor, later condemned the spending as excessive.
As the Lambert Center took off, Pollack became infatuated with a subordinate.
In June 2018, he confessed his adoration. She recoiled.
Pollack began to obsessively email her at all hours. He sent her a crossword puzzle he created with 87 clues about her life. Pollack also sent her love notes and promised to leave her money in his will. He asked her to be a pallbearer at his funeral should he die unexpectedly on a family trip to the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador.
Pollack’s intense focus took a toll on the woman’s work. She avoided the office whenever she could. Pollack also confided his infatuation to another Lambert employee and broke down in tears.
Pollack’s wife called the woman at work, begging to know if her husband’s obsession had turned physical (it hadn’t), and told her Pollack’s preoccupation with her “wasn’t the first.”
Pollack self-reported the harassment to Jefferson’s human resources department in January 2019, according to a Jefferson spokesperson.
Jefferson hired the law firm Klehr Harrison to conduct an investigation. During the probe, Pollack took a leave, and told an Inquirer reporter he was “building houses in Mexico.” When the law firm’s report was delivered in April, he quietly resigned. It’s unclear what the terms of his severance were or how much money he was paid. Jefferson’s spokesperson said the university could not discuss the matter.
Pollack did not respond to a half-dozen email, text, and phone requests for comment. After leaving Jefferson, he was named chairman of the scientific advisory board for FSD Pharmaceuticals, a Canadian cannabis company with Philadelphia-based leadership. This month, he was named adjunct professor of emergency medicine at Temple University’s medical school.
The object of Pollack’s affections has no vendetta against her employer, according to people familiar with the matter. She loves Jefferson as a workplace and knows of no other harassment incidents. She only wants to prevent similar events from occurring in the future.
Brand said Jefferson had “effectively handled” the matter.
“We launched an immediate investigation when we became aware of the allegations,” Brand said. “Dr. Pollack chose to resign. We were comfortable with the result based on the facts presented.”