Medical marijuana is legal in some form in 33 states, but to date, there has been very little scientific evidence that it is an effective treatment for any ailment.

Pennsylvania’s medical schools are now gearing up to determine whether cannabis works.

Six years after the idea was germinated, the nation’s first state-authorized medical marijuana research program is being launched in Philadelphia, state officials said. Researchers at Thomas Jefferson University announced this week that they are recruiting patients for the first of two studies.

The first investigation — a simple observational study that will record what patients take and how they fare — will focus on the impact of cannabis on the quality of life of patients suffering from any one of 23 qualifying “serious illnesses” in Pennsylvania. Those ailments — approved for research by the state Department of Health — include chronic pain, anxiety, cancer, autism, PTSD, and opioid-use disorder, among others. It could determine what additional projects researchers focus on next.

The second study will assemble a smaller focus group to learn about their experiences obtaining patient certification from the state and what they’ve confronted in dispensaries. A planned clinical trial will look at marijuana’s ability to help cancer patients struggling with nausea and weight loss.

Participants will be rewarded with debit cards for filling out questionnaires. The amount, which will be paid by Jefferson, will depend on the study. Information can be found at www.ethoscannabis.com/about/research. Already, about 60 patients have expressed interest in enrolling, organizers said.

“This is the first time there’s ever been a partnership between an American cannabis producer and academic researchers,” said Brooke Worster, a physician at Jefferson’s Sidney Kimmel Medical College. “There may be similar projects going on in Israel, but there’s been nothing like this before in the United States.”

Brooke Worster leads a team of 10 at Jefferson University researching applications of cannabis for a variety of ailments.
Thomas Jefferson University
Brooke Worster leads a team of 10 at Jefferson University researching applications of cannabis for a variety of ailments.

Worster is the lead investigator on a cannabis research staff of 10.

The goal is to put Pennsylvania into the vanguard of cannabis science.

“From the beginning, the research portion of our medical marijuana program in Pennsylvania has set the state apart," said Rachel Levine, secretary of the State Department of Health. “We will be an epicenter for medical marijuana research in the United States.”

A total of eight Pennsylvania medical schools have partnered with weed companies to provide data that will drive the development of new strains of marijuana for medical use. In Southeastern Pennsylvania alone, those institutions include the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, Temple University, and the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Jefferson is paired with Ethos Cannabis, a Pennsylvania-owned company with a marijuana growing facility at the former U.S. Steel’s Fairless Works in Bucks County. The Department of Health last week deemed the indoor farm “fully operational.”

Ethos operates a marijuana dispensary at 807 Locust St., and plans to open five more retail stores across the state. On Tuesday, Ethos announced that it signed agreements to control additional commercial dispensaries in Pennsylvania and Maryland that have been operating under the Mission brand.

“Our goal is to collect as much data as we can,” said David Clapper, president of Ethos Pennsylvania. “We hope to accommodate thousands of patients, though we’re probably looking at between 50 and 500 patients per study.”

Ethos is funding all of the Jefferson research, which is estimated to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

The data will determine which types of cannabis are the most effective for specific ailments. Strains of marijuana vary widely in their ratios of cannabinoids and their amounts of pungent organic compounds called terpenes. The data also will help to determine dosages for effective treatment.

Worster, who has long worked in cancer-pain management, has recommended marijuana to more than 500 patients to treat anorexia, pain and weight loss.

Without a partnership with a dispensary, however, there’s been no way to tell what those patients have used to address their symptoms.

“Unless they bring in the box, they often won’t know what they’re taking," she said. “Working with Ethos, now we can have tighter control. This is light years above anything that we’ve been previously capable of doing.”

Jefferson researchers will not handle any of the cannabis medications. Though marijuana is legal for recreational or medical use in 33 states, nearly all marijuana products remain illegal under federal law. That means academic institutions run the risk of losing their federal funding if they “touch the plant.”

“Brooke’s team from Jefferson won’t be dispensing any marijuana,” Clapper said. “But they will be there to have a consult with patients about the studies so they can understand what the conditions are and if there is a match.”

Clapper also is a partner at MainLine Investment Partners, a private-equity firm based in Wynnewood. Mainline’s principals founded MLH Explorations, the parent company of Ethos.

MainLine’s CEO is William Landman, who is also the former chairman of Jefferson Health’s Board of Trustees. Landman is widely credited with promoting the idea of formal academic research into cannabis and pitching it to state lawmakers.

Clapper said MainLine began to see “real opportunity” in marijuana in 2014 as legalized cannabis took root on the West Coast and began to spread to the middle of country.

“But we didn’t see any real involvement with the academic medical community,” Clapper said. “So as the medical marijuana bill took shape in Pennsylvania, because we had the relationship with Jefferson, we asked if they’d be interested. Then we started talking to the state not just for Jefferson but for all the academic institutions in the state.”

The research provision written into the Pennsylvania law was the first in the nation and has since become a model for West Virginia and New Jersey, Clapper said.