As Pennsylvania prepares to award its first licenses for the fledgling medical marijuana industry, Lehigh University intends to partner with one of the potential growers in the Lehigh Valley to study the effect of the drug on children with autism.

While some parents of autistic children have preached the benefits of cannabis for years, Lehigh’s Dean of Education Gary Sasso confirmed Monday that the university wants to collect some of the first quantitative data on the controversial drug therapy. Pennsylvania is one of the few states that specifically allows children with autism to be treated with cannabis.

He said the anecdotal evidence is interesting, because marijuana appears to lack the side effects of the psychotropic drugs that are accepted in the treatment of autism. But, he cautioned, the effect of marijuana is largely unknown, underscoring the need for the study.

If it proves to be safe, “does it mitigate some of the major characteristics of autism — social reluctance, language [challenges] and other stereotypical behaviors they sometimes engage in?” he said. “We have that kind of expertise to do that.”

Lehigh has been working with autistic children for years under its Center for Promoting Research to Practice and has organized annual workshops and other symposiums on the topic. Its professors conduct research and work with children at the Centennial School, a Lehigh-governed facility that serves children with autism and behavioral challenges.

Sasso said Lehigh would be working with BioGreen Farms, which is competing for a license to grow marijuana in Williams Township. BioGreen, which includes local developer Lou Pektor, has as a medical director Dr. Sue Sisley, who has agreements with other applicants for studies.

Sisley is a member of the steering committee at Thomas Jefferson University’s Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and Hemp.

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