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Geisinger has entered the arena of academic research into medical marijuana but its stated position on cannabis hasn’t changed — the health system doesn’t advocate its use.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health certified the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine as the ninth Academic Clinical Research Center for the state’s medical-marijuana program.

Geisinger says it will receive $30 million to fund research over the next 10 years.

Its approach to researching medical marijuana will be patient-centered, according to Dr. Christa Lese Martin, the health system’s chief scientific officer. Clinical trials are off the table, at least for now.

“This is purely a research program to help us better understand the population impact on the use of cannabis in general,” Martin said. “One of the reasons we decided to enter into the process this time and not five years ago, now medical marijuana is becoming such a (growing) part of patient lifestyle. We need to be responsible as a health care system to understand that better.”

Geisinger doesn’t advocate use, doesn’t dispense the product and doesn’t permit providers to certify patients for the state’s program. It’s more a position of neutrality than one of opposition. Perhaps that will change.

Banned under federal law, medical marijuana is legal by statute in 37 states. Recreational use is permitted in 18 states.

Led by Republican chairman Sen. Mike Regan, a retired U.S. Marshal, a Pennsylvania Senate committee held three hearings on legalization this year as interest builds in the General Assembly. When Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana in 2016, the law was the nation’s first establishing an adjacent research program.

“It’s very important to me that the medical marijuana program in Pennsylvania is not harmed by an adult-use program,” Regan said in Monday’s third and final Senate committee hearing.

Pennsylvania’s registry of certified patients and caregivers surpassed 729,000 in late February, according to the Department of Health. More than 1,700 physicians are approved practitioners.

Outcomes, perspectives

Geisinger’s initial efforts will focus on data collection.

Martin says Geisinger doesn’t currently have strong methods to capture patient data related to medical marijuana use. Researchers will work to incorporate such data as part of the health system’s electronic health records.

As that database is built out, Martin says researchers will look into how the use of medical marijuana impacts different conditions and outcomes across its patient population and demographics.

That could include documenting concurrent use of cannabis and doctor-prescribed pharmaceuticals, or looking at how medical marijuana patients fare in different surgeries. Perspectives of patient and provider also will be explored.

“Many health care systems don’t have an accurate way to capture medical marijuana use in patient records in a structured manner. That would serve as a foundation to then ask other questions,” Martin said.

Geisinger’s expertise in addiction medicine, pharmacy, epidemiology, behavioral sciences, data science and genomics will support its participation in medical marijuana research, the health system says.

Ongoing, completed studies

Story of PA CR, LLC, a newly approved clinical registrant, partnered with Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine as a research facility. State law allows for 10 clinical registrants for the research program. One open slot remains.

Research centers are required to partner with a certified medical marijuana operator. Although Geisinger isn’t planning on using products in its research, Story is permitted to grow and dispense marijuana.

Martin says Geisinger will have full independent oversight of all research studies and publication of results.

Previously approved Academic Clinical Research Centers are as follows: 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, The Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh, Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, Erie, and Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Philadelphia.

Research began in 2019. Many studies are ongoing or in the works. Others have been completed.

Last year, researchers at Drexel initiated a study into the demographics, medical history, consumption and effects on pain, opioid dependence and related symptoms of approximately 1,200 patients.

A study published in November by Penn State researchers found evidence that compounds in cannabis sativa could potentially aid some cancer treatments.

At Thomas Jefferson, research is underway into anxiety and medical marijuana use. Another study is exploring whether medical marijuana changes use or thwarts cravings for people addicted to opioids.



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