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A leaf of marijuana

The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine was among eight Pennsylvania medical schools certified Monday to conduct research in conjunction with Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program.

The approval, coming just three months after Pennsylvania’s first medical marijuana dispensary opened, signals an opening of the door to research that has been restricted due to marijuana’s classification as a narcotic under federal drug laws.

While 29 states have legalized medical marijuana, research as to how and why the drug acts is limited.

“Today, medical research is so limited by the federal government that only a few doctors can even have access to medical marijuana. 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,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in announcing the winners.

Officials at Pitt said they are pleased, but remained unsure when research will begin.

“It is important to note that Pennsylvania is the first and only state in the country to institute such a program, and 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,” Pitt officials said in a statement Monday afternoon.

Most medical research is underwritten in part by the federal government or pharmaceutical companies. Under state law, this research must be financed exclusively by so-called clinical registrants—the companies that hold the grower/processor and dispensary permits for the universities.

Those permits have yet to be awarded. Pennsylvania Health Department spokesman Nate Wardle said applications for the eight clinical registrant permits will be available May 24 and must be filed no later than July 12. The law requires permit holders to demonstrate that they will be able to begin an approved research project within six months of approval.

In addition to Pitt, schools approved to participate in medical marijuana research include: Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia; Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, Philadelphia; Penn State College of Medicine, Hershey; Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia; Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM), Erie; and the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Philadelphia.

Under state law patients who have one of 21 qualified medical conditions can apply for a medical marijuana card. Thus far, more than 37,000 Pennsylvanians have registered to participate in the medical marijuana program. Although research participation is voluntary, any one of them could be asked to participate.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine said Pennsylvania recently became to the first state to add opioid use disorder as an approved condition for medical marijuana treatment.

“It’s important to note that medical marijuana is not a substitute for proven treatments for opioid-use disorder. In Pennsylvania, medical marijuana will be available to patients if all other treatment fails, or if a physician recommends that it be used in conjunction with traditional therapies,” Levine said.

So far, 1,000 physicians have registered for the program with more than 600 certified as practitioners, the health department said.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or [email protected] or via Twitter @deberdley_trib

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