Updated on January 25, 2019.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Since the legalization of medical marijuana in 2016, Pennsylvania has seen a lot of cannabis policy reform.
Between Feb. 20 and March 20 of 2017, the Department of Health accepted applications from businesses that wanted to become marijuana growers/processors or own dispensaries. The applicants were competing for 12 grower/processor permits and 27 dispensary permits spread across six regions.
The department spokeswoman, April Hutcheson, said they expected to receive around 900 applications by the March 20 deadline. So far, the department has not said how many applications it received, from which regions they were submitted or where the proposed locations would be located.
However, each region could end up with two growers/processors while the number of dispensaries will vary based on the local population, the number of potential patients and their demand for the medicine.
It is expected that up to 27 dispensaries will be licensed in specific counties. Each dispensary license will allow businesses to set up dispensaries in three locations. The first dispensary must be in the assigned county, and the other two should be in other counties. This has drawn hundreds of entrepreneurs to the state to compete for a share in the burgeoning industry.
New Draft Regulations for Doctors in 2017
Most recently, in April 2017, Pennsylvania patients moved a step closer to access when the State Department released draft regulations for doctors wishing to recommend medical cannabis. According to the new draft, doctors who want to certify patients must undergo a training course covering the latest marijuana research and best practices.
Karen Murphy, Secretary of the State Department of Health, says doctors are the first step to obtaining medical marijuana. She says for patients to have access to medication, they need to make their regulatory processes open and transparent, starting from the way they regulate their doctors.
Any doctor with an active Pennsylvania license who is qualified to treat at least one of the 17 preapproved conditions and who wants to be licensed to prescribe marijuana must be registered with the State Department of Health in order to recommend the drug to patients. Patients, on the other hand, must receive a prescription from a certified doctor before they can purchase and use medical marijuana in the state.
Here’s how it works.
The physician will give a patient a signed certification stating that they suffer from a serious medical condition. The patient will then apply to the State Department of Health for a medical marijuana ID card. Once the patient is approved, he or she can purchase medical marijuana at any authorized dispensary.
The law passed in April 2017 will allow the use of marijuana to treat 17 health conditions. Doctors can only dispense medical marijuana in the form of oils, pills, topical creams and liquids that can be vaporized or inhaled. The law prohibits dispensing of marijuana in dry leaf form because it does not allow smoking.
The new draft also requires doctors to submit their names to the department’s registry. However, it’s feared that this move could potentially limit access to medical marijuana for patients. This is because asking doctors to put their names on a list increases their odds of not participating. When they don’t participate, patients will have limited access to the drug.
Health Secretary Murphy continues to say the focus is on creating a patient-centered medical marijuana program aimed at offering help to those who badly need it. She believes that issuing draft regulations for doctors is an important step in the quest to achieve their goals.
The draft also covers a series of ethical questions for qualifying physicians who choose to prescribe the drug, which is still considered a schedule I substance per the Drug Enforcement Administration. It spells out that, under the new draft, doctors would be prohibited from advertising their ability to prescribe medical marijuana.
This prohibition is meant to prevent doctors from recommending the drug to just anyone with the intention of getting money, said Beck Dansy, legislative council with the Marijuana Policy Project. She calls them stereotypical pot docs.
Here are the terms of the proposed regulations in more detail:
Doctors wishing to certify patients must undergo a four-hour training course covering the latest medical marijuana research and best practices.
Doctors who qualify to prescribe marijuana must put their names in the registry.
Doctors certified to prescribe marijuana should not have a direct economic interest in a medical marijuana organization.
Doctors seeking certification from the State Department of Health must have an active medical license and must be qualified to treat at least one of the 17 health conditions eligible for treatment with cannabis.
Doctors who are qualified to prescribe the drug cannot prescribe the medication to themselves or their families and household members.
Doctors must immediately report any cases of adverse reactions to the dispensary where the patient obtained their medicine.
Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Laws
The legalization of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania took effect on May 17, 2016, when it was signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf. Since then, the Department of Health has:
Accomplished the provisional guidelines for Safe Harbor and approved 224 applications
Released permits approving requests for growers, processors and dispensaries
Developed the Medical Marijuana Physician Workgroup
Divided the state into six regions, up from three, for the purposes of growers and dispensaries. This was largely determined by population, number of patients and their demands for the drug.
Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana program is expected to be fully implemented in 2018. The program will allow patients who are residents of Pennsylvania and are under a certified physician’s care to access medical marijuana for the treatment of the 17 medical conditions as approved by the law.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Health is set to award permits to 12 growers/processors and 27 dispensaries this coming summer in what they call the first phase of medical marijuana rollout. Medical marijuana is to be fully accessible to patients in 2018.
The department is seeking comments from health professionals, doctors and the public regarding its draft regulations for Pennsylvania doctors.