Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine on Monday said she has approved the state’s medical marijuana advisory board recommendation to permit sale of the dry leaf or plant form for patients with a qualifying medical condition.
She will also allow access to medical marijuana as a treatment for opioid abuse, making Pennsylvania possibly the first state program to do that.
Allowing access to the marijuana plant is seen as a means to offer a lower-cost option to the concentrate forms that must be processed and may cost $200-$300 a month. The flower also is believed to be more effective in treating some medical conditions, while offering better dosage control than the concentrate forms.
Making the marijuana plant available should prove a boon to both cultivators and dispensary operators as well, speeding up the turnaround time from seed to dispensary while boosting the already robust demand for product.
“We’re very excited about it,” said Chicago-based Charlie Bachtell, co-founder of Cresco Yeltrah which holds a grow-process permit in Jefferson County and a dispensary permit in Butler County. Consumers should be excited, too, as he said the flower form likely will be about half the cost as the concentrates because, “I don’t have to do anything to it.”
He anticipates that those groups holding permits to grow and process medical marijuana will now be looking at expanding their operations, as states that already allow flower sales have found the product makes up 55-60 percent of their sales. “This will make the market larger in Pennsylvania.”
Because Pennsylvania’s law prohibits smoking medical marijuana or using it in edible form, the plant would be legally consumed in vaporization form where it would be heated, but not burned, and the patient would inhale the vapor.
Once the plant is purchased and taken home, however, it’s unclear how that rule would be policed. Dr. Levine said patients will be urged to follow the prescribed methods for administering the medication.
“We are not looking for an intoxicating effect. We are looking for a medical effect.”
In addition to adding the marijuana flower to the menu of options, Dr. Levine also approved board recommendations to allow physicians to participate in the program certifying patients while not having their names listed on the public registry. That’s a change Dr. Levine said is designed to encourage more physicians to participate.
She also signed off on a recommendation that patients under 18 be certified by a pediatrician specialist or sub-specialist. Implementation of that change will be delayed for one year because there currently are not enough specialists registered.
In all, the number of qualifying medical conditions will increase from 17 to 21 — the list now including cancer remission therapy and neurodegenerative diseases and spastic movement disorders.
Monday’s livestreamed announcement by Dr. Levine in Harrisburg underscored the rapid growth and progress of the state program since the first medical marijuana patients purchased pills, oils, tinctures and other concentrate forms of the plant in February.
Dr. Levine said during the briefing that the medical marijuana program staff under the direction of John Collins will now draft regulations for the changes and those will appear in the May 12 edition of the Pennsylvania Bulletin. She anticipates plant forms will be available at state-approved dispensaries this summer.
The advisory board just released recommendations on 21 proposed changes to Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program a week ago, signaling its approval on all but one that would limit a practitioner’s ability to specify the form and dose of medical marijuana a patient should get.
Two other proposals barely passed, with six of the 12 voting board members in favor and at least one abstaining.
One recommended a one-year default time period on patient certifications. The other recommended adding use of medical marijuana as a substitute for treating opioid addiction — a pioneering move among states that have legalized medical marijuana.
Internist Sue Sisley, president of the Scottsdale, Arizona, Research Institute and lead investigator studying the use of cannabis for treating post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans, applauded the opioid decision.
“It’s always hard to be the first state to do anything especially related to the word cannabis which is so politically radioactive,” she wrote in an email Monday,
She said that while some will criticize the decision, “Dr. Levine is responding to our governments’ recognition that this [opioid use] is a true public health emergency” and “no reasonable solution should be left off the table to prevent these opioid overdose deaths.”
In February, Dr. Sisley had urged the advisory board to allow patients’ access to the raw flower, saying it has greater therapeutic effect than other forms and also dosages can be better controlled.
To date, 30,413 people in Pennsylvnia have registered for the medical marijuana program with nearly 12,000 certified patients having purchased identification cards that allow them to buy products at state-approved dispensaries.