Temple re-approved for medical marijuana research

The university, which has been previously linked to Laurel Harvest Labs, has yet to publicly partner with a marijuana grower.

CLAIRE HALLORAN / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine was approved to partner with a marijuana grower and conduct comprehensive research on medical marijuana by the state in late September.

Temple is one of the eight universities approved by the state to partner with a grower. Temple’s participation is contingent upon the approval of a grower, which the university has yet to publicly announce. 

Temple was first linked to Mount Joy, Pennsylvania-based grower Laurel Harvest Labs in November 2017, Lancaster Online reported. A university spokesperson declined to comment on Temple’s next steps toward a medical marijuana research partnership.

In an email to The Temple News, Mitch Baruchowitz, founder of Laurel Harvest Labs, deferred questions about the company’s relationship with Temple to his partners, Andrew Dodge and Nick Karalis, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Partnerships between medical schools and growers became legal under Chapter 20 of Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Act, which was signed into law in April 2016. Chapter 20 is intended to provide grower/processor and dispensaries with better information about which strains of marijuana help chronic illnesses.  

Legal issues, including an injunction granted by Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough in May over the legality of the partnerships, have stalled the process. Temple was first approved as an Academic Clinical Research Center, or ACRC, in May, but was required to reapply after the Department of Health rewrote ACRC regulations.

While it is expensive for companies to apply for approval as an operational marijuana grower/processor in Pennsylvania, the financial implications of the partnerships are unclear. It costs $200,000 to apply for an initial grower/processor permit, with an additional $10,000 application fee. Applicants must also have at least $15 million in capital assets to apply, according to state law.

A collection of cannabis companies challenged the legality of Chapter 20 in May, arguing that it provided a number of unfair advantages to businesses chosen by eligible schools.  

Judith Cassel, a Harrisburg-based lawyer for a number of these firms, said that her clients are worried there may be a disparity in regulations between prospective partners and already-operational marijuana businesses. She said the possibility of pay-for-play arrangements between company representatives and universities proved to be worrisome. 

Where is marijuana use legalized?

Matthew Mallory donated $125,000 to Thomas Jefferson University in hopes of partnering with the university to research medical marijuana. However, the university accepted the donation and chose to partner with Wynnewood, Pennsylvania-based Solterra Care LLC backed by Mainline Investment Partners, which some say is a form of “pay-to-play,” the Inquirer reported.

“We don’t know how schools are selecting partners, and we don’t know why they are selecting them, because it is done behind closed doors with no explanation and no transparency,” Cassel said.

Chapter 20 was amended in June to clarify the number of clinical research permits granted and to affirm that ACRCs and their partners will be approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. However, the legislative fix did little to appease the concerns of the cannabis companies represented by Cassel. 

“We still find that Chapter 20 as amended, as well as the regulations enacted underneath it, are inconsistent and incongruent with the intent of the act,” Cassel said.

Medical marijuana is legal in 30 states, including Pennsylvania, and is decriminalized in selective cities in Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 73 percent of American voters support the legalization of medical marijuana.

Temple is currently conducting basic cannabinoid research, but this research is limited solely to using compounds found in the cannabis plant donated from the National Institutes of Health or purchased from companies legally allowed to sell these compounds, said Dr. Sara Jane Ward, a pharmacology professor. Temple is not allowed to administer human trials and has been conducting research on animals, she added.

Ward, who conducts cannabinoid research at the university, said moving forward with a grower would allow researchers to do more direct cannabis research.

“We would have access to the products the dispensaries will be selling so that we can directly study their formulations and unique chemical combinations in our models,” Ward said.

Temple is currently required to complete an extensive amount of paperwork in order to receive scheduled cannabinoids, Ward said.

Due to the federally illegal status of cannabis and the difficulties involved in studying the plant, little scientific information is available about its ability to treat the symptoms of chronic illnesses.

Temple’s ability to study medical marijuana could help find treatments for people struggling with opioid addiction, Ward said. Multiple studies show that medical marijuana can treat epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, Parkinson’s disease and other various medical problems.

“We have many researchers that are passionate about trying to mitigate the opioid crisis and investigating whether cannabis can help in decreasing opioid use,” Ward said. “A lot of that work has been done in animal models, but we need to do a lot more research on marijuana itself to determine the safety and efficacy of that approach.”

Temple Health spokesman Jeremy Walter declined to comment on Temple’s current medical marijuana research.

Drexel University College of Medicine, another school approved to partner and analyze data collected from a dispensary, has been more open about its partnership. 

The school has evaluated a number of prospective partners, composed research teams and developed potential projects in order to begin research, said David Wilson, Drexel vice president of government and community relations.

Wilson added the university has already picked a partner, but the name of the grower has not been publicly released. Drexel has not been able to partner officially because the company has yet to be approved by the state Department of Health, he said.

“We went through a long, exhaustive process and fortunately, through all the ups and downs, we still feel very comfortable moving forward with our intended partner,” he said.

The Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine was also approved for research. The medical school has partnered with Cansortium Holdings, LLC, Renee Cree, a PCOM spokeswoman, wrote in an email to The Temple News.

Desmond McKinson, a spokesperson for State Sen. Sharif Street, wrote in an email to The Temple News that Street supports transparency moving forward in the approval process.

“Senator Street urges and supports transparency in any governmental process,” McKinson wrote.

In April, representatives from PhillyNORML, an organization that advocates for the legalization of marijuana, educated residents about Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program in Street’s office in North Central, Billy Penn reported.

State Rep. Chris Rabb, a former business professor, said if Temple moves forward with medical marijuana research, the university should use profits to benefit the community.

“I don’t believe Temple should profit from this partnership beyond the benefits of the research it conducts with the cannabis grower,” Rabb said. “If it does profit, that money should be reinvested into the community to benefit the people who have been impacted by Temple’s gentrification policies.”

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