Medical marijuana permits bring Pennsylvania one step closer to opening clinics

 In this Jan. 5, 2016 file photo, packaging for medical marijuana is displayed at Vireo Health of New York, a dispensary in White Plains, N.Y.  (Jennifer Peltz/AP Photo, File)

In this Jan. 5, 2016 file photo, packaging for medical marijuana is displayed at Vireo Health of New York, a dispensary in White Plains, N.Y. (Jennifer Peltz/AP Photo, File)

Pennsylvania has taken a step closer to establishing a medical marijuana program.

The state Department of Health has approved 27 permits for more than 50 dispensaries expected to open next year.

Small business owner Chris Visco has never owned a medical marijuana dispensary, but says she and her business partner have more than 80 years of retail experience combined.

They found out this week they were approved as a dispensary. Visco, president and chief operating officer of TerraVida Holistic Centers, says she’s delighted.

“We were elated. We’re absolutely thrilled, absolutely thrilled that we have a great team who has put a lot of time and effort over the last year,” she said.

The 27 permit holders have six months to become operational, and they can have up to three locations but they must be within different counties.

Visco plans dispensaries in Philadelphia, Bucks and Montgomery Counties, and says she’s glad small businesses were considered.

“We keep hearing from people, ‘Oh there’s, you know, big money, big money. There’s so much big money coming in from out of state.’ Our hope was and we’re thrilled that the result is that Pennsylvania did award licenses for a lot of small business Pennsylvania residents.”

The Office of Medical Marijuana received 280 applications for dispensary permits and more than 175 applications for growers or processors. They granted 12 permits for growers/processors.

The cannabis to be dispensed must be in the form of: a pill; oil; tincture; liquid; topical forms, including gel, creams or ointments; or form appropriate for vaporization or nebulization and excludes dry leaf or plant forms.

The legislation that made medical marijuana legal in the state, SB3, was co-sponsored by State Senator Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County, and State Senator Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County.

Many of dispensaries are not distributed evenly but rather seem clustered together, including three of the four within Philadelphia. Two are in the Northeast, one is in the Northern Liberties/Fishtown area, and the fourth is in the Northwest area.

Michael Bronstein, co-founder of the American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp, says fairly rigorous requirements generally made it hard to find locations in Philadelphia and urban regions.

“There were really only a couple of areas, when you start talking about not being able to have a dispensary within a thousand feet of the school, where you start looking at requirements of daycare facilities and things of that nature,” he said. “Really what you’re getting at is you’re limiting down the amount of property that could conceivably be a dispensary.”

Visco, who will have a dispensary in Northwest Philadelphia, was taken aback by the proximity of some of the dispensaries.

“We’re actually extremely surprised by that because the narrative all along has been that the Department of Health was very concerned about access for patients,” she said. “So to see how closely together some of them are is a little confusing. We thought we definitely thought that location would be a bigger factor, and that they would try to spread them out more than they did.”

Officials say geography is not the only consideration and not biggest one.

Visco says their location in the Mount Airy/Germantown neighborhood is critical to serving the community.

“Being in northwest Philly, we’re really serving an under served population because with the others being in the Northeast that would be quite a distance for patients to have to travel, especially those that are very ill and can’t get around well unless they have a caregiver.”

Bronstein with ATACH says dispensary applicants met with community groups and residential associations to discuss what goes on in a dispensary.

“If you were in one of these dispensaries, it’s very much like walking into a pharmacy where medicine is dispensed albeit with much higher levels of security,” he said. “Going out into the community and explaining these things is kind of demystifying what a medical marijuana dispensary. It’s very important for people to understand why they might want to have one of these in their neighborhood.”

Patrick Nightingale, executive director of the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society and a criminal defense attorney in southwestern Pennsylvania, says dispensaries get three storefronts per license and this is only the first round of permits.

“The Department of Health will be able to take a look at both patient input and input from the growers and the dispensary license holders and start to decide, OK, when we phase in this next round of licenses, does Pittsburgh need more? Does Philadelphia need more? Or really do Pennsylvania’s more rural locations need the opportunity to bid on these licenses because their patients would have to travel 50 miles, 100 miles in some cases, essentially get to a dispensary.”

He says the society is pleased the department is delivering on its timeline.

“It’s not the most patient friendly bill by any means, but so far I believe that the Department of Health is working in good faith and demonstrating its commitment to making medical marijuana available to Pennsylvania patients as authorized under our law.”

The Department of Health is still developing the application process for physicians and patients.

Nightingale’s has concerns that production costs and regulation requirements–like a required pharmacist on staff–could be passed on patients.

“If patients cannot afford the medicine that’s being provided in dispensaries, they’re not going to participate in the program.”

His other worry is the doctors not joining the physicians registry.

“If physicians don’t participate in the program they cannot make recommendations to the patients. Patients cannot then purchased medicine at the dispensaries, and the whole business model that we have set up is in jeopardy of failing.”

While the first round of the 52 dispensaries may confuse some, including the nearly 20 locations in Southeastern PA, New Jersey has a total of five dispensaries, known as alternative treatment centers.

“New Jersey was quite literally the victim of Chris Christie,” Nightingale said. “They passed a medical marijuana law that they hoped they would be able to refine and tweak and improve. And then Chris Christie got elected and did literally everything within his power to stymie the will of New Jersey residents and that is continuing to this day.”

Delaware has two dispensaries. The first, in Wilmington, has been operating since 2013. A second one recently opened in Sussex County, while a third is scheduled to open later in this year in the middle county, Kent.

In Southeastern Pennsylvania, the dispensaries are planned for: Abington, Bensalem, Bristol, Devon, Elkins Park, Fort Washington, King of Prussia, Phoenixville, Plymouth Meeting, Philadelphia (4), Sellersville, Upper Darby, Yeadon and West Norriton.

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