University’s medical cannabis center could boost marijuana industry

By Omar Sacirbey

A new center for medical marijuana education and research at a Philadelphia university could give the MMJ industry an economic shot in the arm.

Thomas Jefferson University recently unveiled the Center for Medical Cannabis Education & Research, saying it’s the “first major (U.S.) health sciences university” to lead such an effort.

School officials and marijuana industry leaders said the facility, located within the university, will provide much-needed research into MMJ and help doctors learn about medical cannabis via online courses.

The combination of research and education could lead to more patients using medical cannabis, which in turn could boost revenues for marijuana businesses.

The center’s director – Dr. Charles Pollack, who also heads the university’s Institute of Emerging Health Professions – said his mission will be to educate physicians, patients and the public about medical cannabis, though staffers won’t actually work directly with the plant.

He also acknowledged that the center’s work will be good for the marijuana industry.

“We’ll sort of cleanse the business environment and promote it,” Pollack said. “The more substantial the evidence base is done by respected clinicians and scientists and led by an unbiased and scientifically rigorous group that’s suggesting the studies that should be done, the more it will open up the product to many more potential users.”

Building evidence

The center’s launch last week comes at a time when 26 states – including Pennsylvania – have passed laws establishing medical cannabis programs. Florida voters will weigh in on an MMJ ballot initiative this fall, and other states will likely legalize medical marijuana in the coming years.

The center’s emergence could prove timely for Pennsylvania’s newly created MMJ industry, which ultimately could become one of the largest in the nation.

Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association in Washington DC, welcomed the new center, saying it’s been a challenge “that the medical community has been hesitant to move forward” with the use of MMJ.

“Doctors rely on medical research, and because there’s been so little research, it makes it hard to provide doctors with the same kind of information they usually need to make a diagnosis,” West said. “Having a medical research institution really committed to demonstrating to the medical community the value of medical cannabis, that’s very helpful.”

Thomas Jefferson University traces its roots back to 1824, when it was founded as Jefferson Medical College. Close to 3,700 undergraduate and graduate students were enrolled there for the 2013-2014 academic year.

The medical cannabis center is located within the university’s Institute of Emerging Health Professions.  Five of the institute’s employees also do work for the new center. Pollack, the director, said he hopes to expand the staff eventually.

Legitimizing MMJ products

Marijuana industry officials view the creation of the education and research center as the kind of development that legitimizes MMJ products.

“This is a very major step forward for the entire cannabis industry, and it legitimizes the need for research into this very important plant,” Michael Bronstein, co-founder of the American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp, said. “To see a mainstream institution get into this – and even associate their name with this – in my view is a new day for the industry.”

While the center describes itself as an unbiased scientific institution that won’t hesitate to report cannabis’ negative attributes, it also acknowledges that marijuana has medical value.

“It would be naïve to say the center is completely neutral on this. There’s tremendous patient demand for this. There are people using it successfully in clinical practice. There’s data that it’s helpful in selected patients. The assumption is that it’s helpful in a broad population of patients as well,” Pollack said. “But it’s been impossible to subject it to the same kind of scrutiny a regulated drug undergoes prior to being available to the public.”

For starters, the center’s staffers are:

  • Preparing a research paper about the status of medical cannabis research
  • Working on symposiums about medical cannabis that the center has been asked to hold
  • Planning to develop online courses and other educational materials about medical cannabis for physicians and other healthcare professionals

Research Without Touching Marijuana

Although the center won’t handle the plant directly, Pollack said that’s not a limitation.

“Writing protocols, adjudicating scientific approaches, determining the most expeditious yet rigorous way to assess the potential improvement of patient outcome can be done by people who could be digitally, integrally involved in doing the research. Or it may be done by experts who are advising those people,” Pollack said.

“I don’t think it’s limiting to us at all,” said Pollack.

While Jefferson’s medical cannabis center may be unique, it’s not the first time a medical teaching institution has gotten involved with the cannabis industry.

Peak Harvest Health, a marijuana enterprise seeking medical cannabis licenses in Maryland, recently established a research partnership with the Western Maryland Health System. Peak also announced last December it would partner with Frostburg State University, based in Maryland, on medical marijuana research and cannabis workforce training.

Johns Hopkins University also received funding to conduct research on how CBD may treat concussions.

Physician education is always a good thing, Pollack said. “Patients will demand information from their providers,” he noted. “These offerings about clinical education will elevate the discussion, and make providers more comfortable.”

Omar Sacirbey can be reached at