Lehigh Valley doctor leading bid to grow, dispense medical marijuana – Allentown Morning Call
A top Lehigh Valley pain management doctor who advises the State Department of Health on medical marijuana policy has founded a company that is making a bid for a permits to grow, process and dispense medical cannabis in the region.
Dr. Bruce Nicholson, medical director for the division of pain management at Lehigh Valley Health Network, has launched a company — TruVo Health Care — to apply for one of five “integrated” permits to allow the company to grow and process medical marijuana, as well as provide it directly to patients.
Former Pocono Medical Center President and CEO Jeffrey Snyder will be TruVO’s CEO, handling the business side of the enterprise.
“Our intention is really to raise the science and truly improve the medical aspect of how we look at prescribing medical marijuana, and develop a true, consistent pharmacological approach to administer therapy,” Nicholson said.
TruVo plans to grow and process medical marijuana in rural Lynn Township and to open dispensaries in Lehigh County and at two other sites in northeastern Pennsylvania.
If it gets the permits it needs, the company will focus on providing a pain management alternative that carries fewer risks than opioids such as oxycodone, which can be addictive and lead to heroin dependency, Nicholson said. TruVo also expects to conduct clinical trials and research on how medical cannabis can be used to treat chronic pain and other conditions.
“The legalization and acceptance of medical marijuana is an important step in bringing non-opioid pain relief to those who need it most,” Nicholson said in a statement. “Our unique and well-rounded team at TruVo will help open the door to safe medication designed to maximize potential medicinal benefits and minimize psychoactive effects.”
There is evidence that medical cannabis can be used in place of opioids to manage chronic pain, and in some cases to help wean patients off opioids they are taking, Nicholson said. TruVo’s goal, in part, would be to conduct research and trials that would study the most effective use of medical marijuana in treating pain.
Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana law is unique in that it creates a separate category of license for clinical research facilities, but the Department of Health hasn’t revealed how it plans to administer that part of the law, said Daniel Clearfield, a Harrisburg attorney with expertise in medical marijuana law.
Given that, it would make sense for an entity that is interested in doing research in the future to apply for an integrated permit now, he said.
“If you really want to be in the Pennsylvania market, and you have made a deal with a medical school or you want to make a deal with a medical school, I would think you are going to go apply for a grower-processor or dispensary license until the Department of Health clarifies it,” he said.
TruVo has acquired property for its growing/processing operation, 12.4 acres in Lynn Township, and has already discussed its plan for the former Blue Mountain Nursery with township officials, Nicholson said. It plans to hold a town meeting on its plans Feb. 1.
TruVo affiliate Green Girl Growers LLC purchased the Behler Road property from Eric and Terri Lundberg in November for $730,000, according to county property records. Lynn is Lehigh County’s largest township in terms of land area, but is home to only about 4,200 people.
The property is zoned commercial-agricultural, a company spokeswoman said.
Township Supervisor Steve Feinour said officials are aware of TruVo’s plans for the land, but as far as he knows the company has taken no formal action on it. He said he expects the company will simply have to comply with township zoning like any other would.
“As far as the township is concerned, as long as it is legal, we don’t care if its marijuana, wheat, rye, corn or soybeans,” he said.
The company also is looking into locations for three dispensaries, the pharmacy-like outlets that fill patients’ marijuana prescriptions. TruVo plans to put one in Lehigh County, another in Monroe County and a third in Northampton County or the Scranton-Wilkes Barre area. It has an option on a site in Emmaus, Nicholson said.
Pennsylvania’s law does not authorize production of medical marijuana in leaf form, meaning it can’t be smoked. It will be available in the form of pills, oils, topical gels, creams or ointments as well as a liquid that can be vaporized and inhaled.
The state Department of Health issued applications for dispensary and grower-processor permits last week. Phase one of the program will authorize 27 dispensaries and 12 grower/processor operations. The agency will accept applications between Feb. 20 and March 20 and expects to begin awarding permits this summer.
The state expects patients to be able to get access to medical marijuana prescriptions in 2018. It has not said how it will evaluate “integrated” applications from companies seeking to grow, process and dispense marijuana.
The Department of Health has divided the state into six regions to try to spread the medical and economic benefits of medical marijuana around, with the Lehigh Valley allocated two to eight dispensaries and at most two grower/processor operations as part of the northeast region.
Allentown entrepreneur Tim Charles, who founded PA Cannabis LLC, is planning to apply for a permit to open a dispensary on Main Street in Emmaus. It would appear to be in competition with TruVo’s bid for Lehigh County’s single dispensary permit.
Paul Mullin, a Lansdale attorney who is an expert in medical marijuana law, said competition for the permits will be fierce. Pennsylvania-based operations such as TruVo will compete with companies with experience in other states. The Department of Health has said more than 900 entities have expressed some level of interest in the state’s medical marijuana industry.
Nicholson, who will be the company’s chief medical officer, is also director of Pain Specialists of Greater Lehigh Valley, a pain management practice with offices in Allentown and Bethlehem, and a clinical associate professor at Penn State’s College of Medicine at Hershey Medical Center.
He was appointed to the Department of Health’s Medical Marijuana Advisory Board in August.
Snyder was CEO at Pocono Medical Center before it merged with Lehigh Valley Health Network in January. He resigned in December, ahead of the merger.
TruVo has no connection to Lehigh Valley Health Network, Nicholson said, although he plans to retain his role as medical director for the network’s division of pain management and to continue his medical practice. Lehigh Valley Health Network did not respond to questions about TruVo.
The company has put together “an executive team that includes some of the nation’s top experts in medicine and pharmacology, growing and cultivation, research, advocacy, [Food and Drug Administration] compliance and safety,” the company said in its announcement, but it did not name any other officers.
It also promised to work with unnamed leading health care and research institutions to develop and conduct research on high quality “pharmaceutical-grade medical marijuana.”
The five integrated licenses are seen as plums by industry experts, allowing the holders to cut the dispensary middle man out of the equation and provide its medical marijuana directly to patients.
“A fully integrated permit is highly sought-after because it would allow a company to control every point of the process,” said Michael Bronstein of the American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp. “If you are growing and processing, you don’t have to worry about finding good distribution because you have an outlet to market. If you are dispensing, you know where you are getting your product. In essence, you have a little more ability to control your own destiny.”