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Revised rules on medical marijuana research prompt new lawsuit

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A coalition of firms involved in growing, processing and distributing medical marijuana in the state have sued the Pennsylvania Department of Health, claiming the agency acted unlawfully through its methods of authorizing registrants for medical marijuana research.

The group of about 10 petitioners, known as Medical Marijuana Advocates for Research, consists of holders of medical marijuana permits and industry stakeholders. The group filed a petition for review with the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania on Nov. 27.

The petition argues that the state health department unlawfully delegated state colleges and hospitals, known as Academic Clinical Research Centers, or ACRCs, to authorize which partners they want to grow, dispense and research medical marijuana for them. The petition also claims that the department has "watered down" its commitment to providing high-quality research.

It is the second suit filed against the department this year by entities involved in medical marijuana sales. The first suit, which made similar claims as the suit filed last month, argued that the department unlawfully permitted companies working in research to sell medical marijuana in competition with permit holders that went through a vetting process.

Judith Cassel, an attorney from Harrisburg law firm Hawke McKeon & Sniscack LLP, represented permit holders in the first suit and now represents Medical Marijuana Advocates for Research.

Cassel said the first suit against the department was proving successful after the court granted a preliminary injunction to pause regulations, but the department withdrew its regulations, causing the suit to be dropped.

"We won and the judge issued a 52-page order and found for us wholeheartedly." Cassel said."We didn’t lose; we weren’t wrong. DOH rescinded its regulations and issued new regulations in August."

But the new regulations, Cassel said, did not fix the problems in the initial regulations. The most recent suit states that the department has failed to fairly select clinical registrants.

The petition reads that the selection process for clinical registrants fails to chose the most qualified growers, processors or dispensaries because it does not choose clinical registrants based on the vetting process it has set for permit winners. 

"The way those regulations are written, to get a permit by the Department of Health, all you have to do is get a contract with an ACRC," Cassel said. "We feel that this process has not been transparent. They are not choosing the very best to do this research and they are not beholden to doing very much research."

The department declined to comment on the litigation but spokesman Nate Wardle said that the department is dedicated to the program.

"The governor and bipartisan members of the General Assembly are united in their support for Chapter 20 of the Medical Marijuana Program,” Wardle said.

Chapter 20 is the portion of the state law that authorizes research into medical marijuana

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Ioannis Pashakis

Ioannis Pashakis covers health care and Lancaster County. Email him at ipashakis@cpbj.com.

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