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The Mon Valley is at the forefront of a new industry that will be as transformative for the rest of the world as the steel industry was a century ago, state Sen. Jim Brewster said Thursday.
At a groundbreaking ceremony on the site of the former U.S. Steel National Works, Brewster called PurePenn's new medical cannabis production and research facility "a beacon of hope" for both the region and patients around Pennsylvania.
"Don't let the naysayers drag you down," Brewster told a crowd of more than 200 gathered in the RIDC Industrial Center of McKeesport, where PurePenn is purchasing five acres of property, with an option to purchase five more. "We can do almost anything in the Mon Valley --- you should believe that."
Afterwards, many in the crowd joined the hundreds of people who lined up outside the Palisades Ballroom to apply for one of the 25 jobs that PurePenn needs to fill.
Gabe Perlow, the company's chief executive officer, said operations will begin by Dec. 20.
PurePenn is one of 12 companies across Pennsylvania --- and only two in the Pittsburgh region --- that last month were awarded licenses by the state Department of Health to grow marijuana plants and extract chemicals from them for medicinal purposes. PurePenn will not dispense medical marijuana products; dispensary licenses are being granted separately.
The company is working with formulas and methods first developed by a Nevada company known as Moxie Seeds & Extracts, which has successfully produced cannabis extracts for medicinal purposes since 2015.
Studies have found that cannabis extracts can provide relief for patients suffering from a wide range of conditions, including chronic pain, loss of appetite, muscle spasms, insomnia, migraines and glaucoma.
Perlow said he first learned of the medicinal properties of cannabis while on a trip through Europe with a cousin who suffers from Crohn's disease. His cousin "wanted to stop in Amsterdam," Perlow said, getting a laugh from the audience. He was alluding to the fact that marijuana can be legally purchased for recreational use in the Dutch capital.
But while his cousin was using the marijuana, Perlow said, he had relief from the symptoms of his Crohn's disease. Today, he said, his cousin lives in Michigan, which like Pennsylvania recently legalized medical marijuana, and his Crohn's disease is in remission.
In addition to Brewster, Perlow was joined by McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, state Rep. Bill Kortz and several patient advocates who lobbied Pennsylvania legislators and Gov. Tom Wolf to legalize marijuana for medical uses, including Danielle and Joe McGurk of Beaver Falls.
The McGurks became interested in medicinal cannabis after two of their children were diagnosed with Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy that usually emerges in early childhood and which causes severe seizures, sleep disruptions and developmental disorders. Dravet, which is aggravated by heat, is difficult to treat.
Those children, now ages 12 and 15, played with tablet computers in the front row yesterday. They could not have made such a trip without medical cannabis extracts, Joe McGurk said.
The McGurks have been going to other states to obtain medicinal cannabis for their children. "Knowing that I'm not going to have to travel out-of-state or do anything illegal to get help for my children is a dream come true," Danielle McGurk said.
Her husband said the couple, and other advocates for medical marijuana, "never thought we would actually get to this day."
"To know that kids with seizures, soldiers with PTSD, people with diabetes, so many others, are going to get the help they need is astounding," Joe McGurk said. "You are witnessing a life-changing event here today."
Following the groundbreaking ceremony, Perlow presented Cherepko and city council members Jamie Brewster-Filotei, LuEthel Nesbit and Keith Soles with a check for $50,000 to create a new McKeesport Community Fund that will be supported by PurePenn.
Perlow thanked McKeesport officials, Brewster, Wolf and the state Department of Health for their help, and also thanked the patients and their families.
"What this all comes down to is, it was the patients and the families who have at times put themselves at risk to make this happen," he said.
State Sen. Jim Brewster of McKeesport
McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald
Danielle McGurk with state Rep. Bill Kortz of Dravosburg
All photos: Special to Tube City Almanac
Originally published July 27, 2017.