By Alyse Horn-Pyatt
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Tucked into Penn Avenue in the Strip District, across from Roxanne’s Dried Flowers, sits another kind of dried flower shop: the CY+ Dispensary.
Owned by Cresco Labs, the medical cannabis retail store opened in June 2018 and several months later they established the Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Education Center next door.
Cresco Yeltrah’s dispensary in Butler, the name Chicago-based Cresco Labs operates under in Pennsylvania, was the first to sell medical cannabis in PA in February 2018. Since then,more than 134,000 patients have registered with the program and more than 2.3 million products have been sold.
“Realizing 100,000 patient certifications and seeing the first Phase II grower and processor operationalized is a testament to the hard work of the Department of Health, the many advocates for this program, and our General Assembly who passed this legislation nearly three years ago,” Governor Tom Wolf said in an April press release. “It’s progress that is making a difference in the lives of many Pennsylvanians.”
Dr. Lauren Vrabel, director of patient care at CY+ Dispensary in the Strip District, says she became a pharmacist to help people with their medical conditions, but didn’t think big pharmaceutical companies were “doing the best job of that.”
“For the first time I’ve been able to genuinely help patients and see their progress and quality of life improve,” Vrabel says.
Currently there are 21 qualifying conditions for medical marijuana, including severe chronic pain, HIV/AIDS, and epilepsy, and under the recommendation of Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Advisory Board anxiety and Tourette syndrome may be added to the list. Nate Wardle, press secretary for the Department of Health, says these two conditions are still under review.
Theresa Nightingale, patient acquisition specialist for the PA Medical Marijuana Education Center and local cannabis activist, says in general she thinks the state is doing a good job at promoting the program, but they could make the registration process easier.
Right now if patients are having a difficult time signing up for a medical marijuana ID card or renewing, which they must do online, they are asked to send an email to the health department and can get stuck playing the waiting game. There is also a phone number to call, but Nightingale says most patients are met with an answering machine and it takes a long time to get a call back.
In Pittsburgh, patients are able to utilize the education center to register, find a physician, and troubleshoot the system, but it’s the only resource of its kind in the state.
Ashley Corts, a medical marijuana patient and owner of Black Forge Coffee House, says cards must be renewed annually and she is currently in the process of doing so. She says registration was pretty simple, but an issue that she has run into is that patients must login to their account every four months or it is deactivated, and hers was.
Now that she can’t login to the medical marijuana program website, she can’t renew her medical card and she is having trouble getting information on how to reactivate her account.
“The issue I’m having right now is hoping someone contacts me and makes this a smooth process,” Corts says.
Product consistency has also been an issue, Nightingale says, with not enough growers and processors making high-CBD products. (CBD is a cannabinoid, a natural component of the cannabis plant believed to have health benefits.)
“Some people are very particular with what strains they’re looking for,” Nightingale says. “With conditions like epilepsy, you can’t be mixing and matching strains.”
Corts uses cannabis to treat chronic pain and posttraumatic stress disorder and says there have been times when she’s visited the dispensary to find a strain she liked wasn’t in stock or had been discontinued. Although inconvenient, Corts says employees are knowledgeable and helpful in finding other strains that works for her.
Overall, the biggest concern for patients has been the price. The medical marijuana ID card costs $50, and there is assistance for individuals who participate in select government programs like Medicaid, but Corts says it will cost her $125 to renew her card and the initial visit to a certified doctor was around $200.
As for cannabis products, Corts says an eighth of flower is around $65 depending on the strain, but as the industry grows there is the hope it will become more affordable.
“The market in Pennsylvania is based on the free market, where people have the ability to go to the dispensary they feel offers the best product and best price to address their serious medical condition,” Wardle says. “We anticipate that as the market grows with more grower/processors and more dispensaries, that the price will decrease.”
Wardle says there are 13 operational growers/processors out of 25 in the state, but operational doesn’t necessarily mean the facility is producing.
Harvest Health & Recreation, one of the largest cannabis companies in the country, announced in a press release on April 9 that they would be acquiring CannaPharmacy, Inc., the parent company of Franklin Labs LLC that operates a cultivation facility in Reading. Over a year ago, the 47,000-square-foot facility was slated as operational but has not provided cannabis to any dispensary in Pennsylvania.
“The difference comes between being operational and shipping product,” Wardle says. Currently 10 of the 25 cultivation facilities are “shipping” product. The three that are not are AgriMed, Franklin Labs, and FarmaceuticalRX.
Harvest also touted the ownership of 21 dispensaries in Pennsylvania when the state medical marijuana law allows only 15 dispensaries per company. Harvest was able to bypass the limitation through a loophole and applied for the dispensary permits using limited liability companies, making each permit application considered a separate business.
According to Philly.com, the state’s medical marijuana program responded to Harvest’s claims by issuing a letter that says, “Because each business is recognized as a separate legal entity under law, the department expects each to operate as independent entities as represented in the permit applications. Any continued misrepresentation that these entities are one and the same will be construed as a falsification of the permit applications and will result in the office taking action against each entity, including possible revocation of permits.”
The state also reiterated that the Franklin Labs’ grow permit is “non-transferable under Section 603(B) of the Medical Marijuana Act,” according to Philly.com.
The Medical Marijuana Act allows for 25 grower/processors and 50 dispensary permits all of which have been granted, and each dispensary is able to open three locations. Patients are currently not allowed to grow their own plants for personal use, but there is a bill in the House and the Senate, HB 50 and SB 350, that has started the discussion.
Both bills call for cannabis legalization in the state allowing people to grow up to six plans for personal use and SB 350 would permit “micro-growers” to cultivate cannabis in their homes and sell to processors and dispensaries.
Another important aspect of both bills is that individuals with previous criminal convictions for cannabis-related offenses would be automatically expunged—something that is currently keeping people out of the cannabis industry.