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Spotlight PA court victory leads to new academic research into Pa. medical marijuana program

Pennsylvania Department of Health logo on the outside of its main building.
Ed Mahon
Spotlight PA
In February 2023, the Pennsylvania Department of Health shared data that Spotlight PA won access to with academic researchers across the state.

This story first appeared in The Investigator, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA featuring the best investigative and accountability journalism from across Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.

HARRISBURG — After a 15-month legal battle, Spotlight PA in 2022 won access to data showing the reasons why hundreds of thousands of patients qualify for the state’s medical marijuana program. We published a big investigation based on the records last year.

And we’re not the only ones using the data to better understand the state’s medical marijuana program.

In February 2023, the Pennsylvania Department of Health shared the data that Spotlight PA won access to with academic researchers across the state, according to a department spokesperson.

Researchers with the Geisinger health system seized upon the chance.

“Not all states are as transparent with this information,” said Brian Piper, an assistant professor of neuroscience with the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine. “So it was a very valuable opportunity.”

Piper and his colleagues used the data to analyze relationships between dispensary locations and the proportion of adults with medical marijuana certifications in certain areas. The study also examined the link between dispensary locations and the proportion of certifications issued for certain medical conditions — ones categorized as having no or insufficient evidence to support or refute the effectiveness of medical marijuana as a treatment.

In an article, the researchers described the work as “the first study in the U.S. of the association between dispensary locations and qualifying conditions.”

Annemarie Hirsch, an associate professor in Geisinger’s Department of Population Health Sciences and director of the Center for Community Environment and Health, is listed as the first author of the team’s article. She described the study as a “hypothesis generating” one that could inform further research.

The findings were distributed in August as a preprint article, meaning it had not yet completed the peer review process to be published in a scientific journal. As of January, the researchers were going through that process, which can often take several months.

“We’re using this preprint as a mechanism to get findings out to the general community who can benefit,” Piper told Spotlight PA.

In December, Spotlight PA made the qualifying condition data it won in court available online for anyone to analyze. Those anonymized data do not identify individual patients or doctors.

Drexel University’s Medical Cannabis Research Center cited Spotlight PA’s analysis — which found that anxiety disorders are the top reason patients qualify for the program — last year in a review of the research around cannabis and anxiety.