Suit to derail Pa. marijuana research is 'pathetic,' says law's author

A suit filed to stop Pennsylvania’s state-sanctioned marijuana research before it launches is “pathetic because it’s all about the money,” said State Rep. Kathy Watson (R., Bucks), the primary author of the provision that created the program.

In April, several commercial cannabis growers and dispensary owners filed a complaint against the Department of Health in Commonwealth Court. The suit called the department’s regulations governing the research program “disruptive” and “unlawful” because it overstepped the law’s original intent.

They claim that the research program — which pairs eight health systems with marijuana companies — will, among other things, “flood the market with medical marijuana.”

The health system-affiliated companies, called “clinical registrants” or “CRs”, will each operate a growhouse and up to six retail stores. The health systems will help create studies and analyze data collected from patients who buy their medicines at the company’s dispensaries.

The suit has no merit, said Watson, who is retiring after serving 17 sessions in the General Assembly. She called the regulations “perfectly fair and straight up.”

Camera icon Kathryn Watson
St. Rep. Kathryn Watson (R., Bucks).

“What they’re afraid of is competition,” Watson said. “Because when the real medical marijuana places open up, patients will switch their prescriptions to dispensaries backed by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, or Penn, or Drexel, or Geisinger, or Temple.”

Watson this week filed an amicus brief in support of the health department and Secretary of Health Rachel Levine.

If she had had her druthers, there would have been no commercial sales outside of the medical research program, Watson said in an interview Friday with the Inquirer and Daily News.

The medical marijuana industry in Pennsylvania launched in February with the first sales to patients suffering from 17 qualifying health conditions. Another four ailments —  including pain from opioid withdrawal — will be added Saturday.

Currently, 12 commercial growers cultivate cannabis in the state. Five growers are plaintiffs in the suit, along with a handful of dispensary owners.

The state currently is taking applications from the health systems and the CRs. The health systems — medical schools with acute-care hospitals —  will choose their company partners. They won’t be restricted to research-only marijuana sales to patients. The suit claims the law’s vague language offers no guarantee of meaningful research.

“I want to stress that we’re not against research,” said attorney Judith D. Cassel, who represents the plaintiffs. “We’re filing this because we believe research is a great thing for this business and this industry. We only want it to be done by the best people possible and for their efforts to be entirely focused on research.”

Without an explicit research program written into the law, Watson said there would be no medical marijuana in Pennsylvania.

“The law would not have passed,” said Watson. “I would have been a  ‘no’ vote as would have the others in my caucus.”