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Pa. medical marijuana program to about to double in size, adding unique research at Philly medical schools

The program is expanding to add 13 more commercial growers and 23 dispensary operators. A new research enterprise involving med schools will parallel the established commercial program.

Marijuana growing at a Cresco Labs plant in Illinois.
Marijuana growing at a Cresco Labs plant in Illinois.Read moreHandout

Pennsylvania's commercial medical marijuana program is set to more than double in size.

State officials Thursday announced the program was entering its second phase, expanding from 12 to 25 cannabis producers and adding 23 more dispensary operators.

The state also is launching a unique research effort that will run in parallel to the established commercial program, conducting clinical investigations into marijuana and selling to the public.

"From what I've seen and heard, there seems to be a high interest in doing research around pain management and as a replacement for opioids," John Collins, director of the state marijuana program, said in a phone conference with reporters.

When the commercial program is fully up to speed by late next year, Pennsylvania is expected to have a total of 25 commercial companies growing and processing marijuana into tinctures and vaporizable oils.

And there will be as many as 150 commercial retail outlets selling it to patients.

The first sales began Feb. 15, and demand quickly outstripped supply. But those shortages have eased recently. Currently, two commercial producers are shipping medicinal products. Nine retail outlets are actively dispensing, Collins said.

The number of growers and dispensers will further balloon with the launch of the nation's first state-sanctioned academic research program.

Under Pennsylvania's new research program, eight health systems — medical schools affiliated with an urgent-care hospital — will be able to choose a marijuana producer, Collins said.

The research producers not only will be granted a lucrative permit to grow; they also will be awarded a permit to operate six dispensaries apiece.

(That will take the total number of growers in the state to 33 and dispensaries to 198.)

The health systems are permitted to accept "reasonable remuneration" to set up their research programs from the marijuana companies but are forbidden to solicit gifts from company owners, managers, or backers. Charitable contributions made a year before the enactment of the law are exempt.

Pennsylvania has eight major university health systems. The four based in Philadelphia —  Drexel, Temple, Jefferson, and the University of Pennsylvania — have all expressed interest in conducting research, according to industry insiders. Also eligible are the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Geisinger Health, Penn State-Hershey, and Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine.

The health systems will construct research studies focusing on medicinal applications but will not actually handle the cannabis plant or any of its products. That's because federal law outlaws marijuana in any form. Handling the drug would jeopardize federal grants and funds flowing from Medicare and Medicaid.

The research dispensaries will enroll patients into those studies. The health systems will analyze the data the dispensaries collect. The dispensaries also will sell marijuana products to patients who are not participating in studies.

The Department of Health will begin to accept applications for commercial and research phase 2 permits April 5.

Aspiring commercial growers and dispensary operators who lost in the first round are required to apply again and pay application fees — $10,000 for a grow, $5,000 for a dispensary — a second time, said a Health Department spokeswoman.

The Pa. medical marijuana program by the numbers:

Patients registered with the Pa. program: 25,503

Patients certified by the state: 9,020

Patients who have bought at a dispensary: 6,683

Doctors registered to participate: 866

Doctors who have taken educational courses and are approved to write recommendations: 473