How Philadelphia Is Growing Into U.S. Cannabis Research Capital

What to Know

  • Thomas Jefferson University held its first ever CannaVation event where cannabis innovators competed for $10,000.
  • Jefferson is one of five Philly research institutions approved by the state to study medical marijuana.
  • With these five accredited centers, Philadelphia stands to lead the nation in cannabis research.

From hemp-based tampons to cannabis-infused butter, innovators are zeroing in on Philadelphia's growing cannabiz potential. 

Several competed Wednesday for a $10,000 prize at Thomas Jefferson University's CannaVation event, which attracted marijuana entrepreneurs from all over the continent.

The winner, Canadian pharmacist Kit Poon, developed screening software to help physicians comb through a database of cannabis and find the right strain for their patients.

That a Canadian pharmacist chose Philadelphia to pitch his cannabiz idea speaks to the city’s fertile research economy.

Jefferson’s Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and Hemp is a leading research institution that happens to have deep pockets. It is also one of five Philadelphia-based research centers certified by the state to study pot.

“Entrepreneurs, when they’re approaching this fertile ground for innovation, will find Philly and this corridor very attractive,” Rose Ritts, Jefferson executive vice president and chief innovation officer, said.

The thinking among industry leaders is that science can lessen the taboo surrounding cannabis. But the only way to conduct scientific research is to secure approval from the federal government, which still considers the plant a Schedule 1 drug.

As a result, cannabis maintains a kind of mythical status within the research world. Its therapeutic properties remain largely untapped yet acquiring it legally is harder than buying it on the street.

This hasn’t prevented entrepreneurs, like Poon, from joining the green rush. Instead, investors and researchers are teaming up throughout the region to create their own partnerships that skirt federal prohibitions.

Last month, the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine joined Jefferson, Temple, Drexel and Penn universities in securing Academic Clinical Research Center permits from the state Department of Health, which oversees Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program. The certification enables these institutions to research programs and study data collected at medical cannabis dispensaries.

However, none of these centers can study the actual plant, including organic material grown in Pennsylvania by licensed cultivators.

The only plant available for research comes from the University of Mississippi. To access it, researchers must navigate a complex bureaucratic web involving multiple federal agencies starting with the FDA and ending with the DEA.

There is no timeline for studies to be approved by the federal government, and very few trial studies have been conducted in the United States to date.

Many investors fear the country is quickly falling behind international competitors.

“Medical innovation and clinical research is being stymied by our own laws,” Lindy Snider, cannabis entrepreneur and daughter of former Flyers owner Ed Snider, said. “Until the law is changed, there is always going to be a ceiling.”

Poking holes in the ceiling remains the only recourse for hungry innovators.

Earlier this year, Jefferson launched the initiative, which collects data from 100,000 registered medical marijuana patients throughout the country. Many of these patients suffer from chronic pain and were prescribed opioids. The first big question is whether their quality of life can be improved by using cannabis-based treatment.

“You’ve got 30 states that allow it to be used for a medical condition and, for the most part, we have very little medical guidance,” Dr. Charles V. Pollack, director of Jefferson’s Lambert Center, said. “We are trying to close the scientific gap.

At Temple’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine, Sara Jane Ward received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study cannabis-based treatment for neuropathic pain and traumatic injuries. In her research, Ward doesn't use tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, which produces a high and is difficult to acquire legally.

Instead, she uses synthetic cannabidiol created in Doylestown by bio-pharmaceutical company Kannalife Sciences.

One of these compounds, KLS-13019, has been shown to prevent chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, which causes the chronic and debilitating pain associated with cancer treatment.

“You need the evidence otherwise no one will believe you,” Kannalife spokesman Thoma Kikis said. “Science leads the way.”

The lack of science is what prompted Canadian pharmacist Kit Poon to develop the software pitched at Jefferson. He was inspired by a patient with epilepsy whose neurologist recommended cannabis but offered little additional guidance. A novice to the plant, she consulted the Internet and cold-called a marijuana grower. It took her three weeks to receive the medication.

Poon’s software, he said, could help patients like her navigate the seemingly endless world of cannabis products.

“If you’re a cancer patient and you’re looking for cannabis to alleviate some of that chronic pain for end of life care, you really don’t have three weeks to research and figure things out,” Poon said.

Researchers at Penn Medicine have already dedicated several years to studying how cannabis could help epilepsy.

Dr. Frances Jensen, chair of neurology at Penn Medicine, forged a close relationship with a family from Texas whose child died from a rare form of epilepsy in 2016. The only relief the little girl found during her short life came after her parents discovered hemp oil.

Jensen’s team is looking at the brains of epileptic mice to see how they react to cannabidiol. She never meant to study cannabis, but the family’s experience provided strong anecdotal evidence, Jensen said.

Still, questions remain regarding the safety and efficacy of cannabis to treat epilepsy and other disorders. The only way to get answers, however, is continued research.

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