HARRISBURG — The man in charge of the state’s medical marijuana program is reiterating that patients will start receiving the drug early next year.
Speaking at an educational summit last week, John Collins, director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Medical Marijuana, provided an update and the next steps for the program that was set in motion more than a year ago.
“We are committed and on track to deliver medical marijuana to patients, who have been waiting way too long, in the first quarter of 2018,” Collins said. “You have my commitment we’re going to do that.”
He joined industry, legal, educational, government, and medical speakers at the summit at Harrisburg Area Community College. The event was sponsored by the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society and scientific and medical equipment manufacturer Shimadzu.
Collins allowed for the three-month window given the mix of businesses navigating the heavily regulated program, which is missing critical patient data that should be available in the next few months. Nonetheless, Collins said, the state intends to hit its target dates this year and next, and plan accordingly for what lies ahead.
“We are within a very short period time of having our first wave of grower/processors putting seeds and clones in the ground,” Collins said.
The plants’ marijuana compounds will be made into pills, oils, ointments and forms that can be vaporized by patients who obtain certificates from the state for treatment of serious medical conditions such as cancer, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder and others as defined by the program that was signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf on April 17, 2016.
“It is not, as you already are aware, dry leaves,” Collins said.
He cautioned against using the law’s signing as the starting point for delivering medical marijuana. Much had to be done in preparing regulations and gathering information on potential patients and companies interested in doing business with the state before the permits could be issued.
The best practice in the private sector is nine months from the issuing of permits, Collins said.
In June, Pennsylvania issued 27 dispensary and 12 grower/processor permits in six regions throughout the state. Three permit-holders have operations in Luzerne County: Justice Grown Pennsylvania will open a dispensary in the Gateway Shopping Center in Edwardsville; Columbia Care Pennsylvania LLC has a permit for a dispensary on Kidder Street in Wilkes-Barre; and Standard Farms received a grower/processor permit for a facility in White Haven.
“I don’t see that we’ll have an issue here with volume,” Collins said.
Overall the law calls for issuing 50 permits for dispensaries and 25 for grower/processors on the commercial side. It allows for another eight permits each for dispensaries and grower/processors on the clinical side. The commercial dispensaries can have as many as three locations, and the clinical dispensaries can have as many as six. The maximum number of combined dispensaries is 198.
The state is proceeding with the program even though the federal government has civil and criminal enforcement powers for the possession and use of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act.
Under guidelines the U.S. Department of Justice issued in 2013 that set priorities for federal authorities regarding marijuana, it’s unlikely participants in the state’s medical marijuana program will be prosecuted, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
It’s too early to tell whether the state will need all 198 dispensaries, Collins said. He acknowledged his office still needs to get a better handle on where the patients are for Phase 1 of the program, and that should happen soon.
The state Department of Health has data on diseases that was used to assist in the permitting process. Collins said he also considered population in each of the six regions, along with roadways and access to the permitted facilities.
“Beginning in November I will have access to real live patient data,” he said.
That’s when patients and caregivers can register for the program.
From there, a patient must obtain certification from a state-approved doctor who lists a patient as suffering from one of the 17 serious medical conditions defined by the law. The patient next would apply to the state for a medical marijuana identification card that can be used at a dispensary.
The patient data also will be key to determining what to do next, Collins said.
“Remember, I need to learn a little bit more in the next coming month or two months as to whether or not I need to introduce more capacity into the system,” he said.
Collins added that he has to be cautious. “I have current permitees that I’m accountable to. They have investments. I don’t want to collapse the market.”
He wouldn’t rule out a third round of permits.
“I suppose,” Collins said. “It depends upon what we do in Phase 2.”