HARRISBURG — The state Department of Health awarded 23 permits for dispensing medical marijuana on Tuesday, almost doubling the number of operators previously approved by the state to sell the drug.
The state received applications from 167 entities interested in selling medical marijuana in this round of permitting. This is the second set of dispensary permits approved under the 2016 law that legalized the use of medical marijuana for the treatment of serious medical illnesses in Pennsylvania. The new permits bring the statewide total to 50 dispensary permits, each of which allows the operators to open up to three sites.
Nine of the permits were approved in southeast Pennsylvania; three in northeast Pennsylvania; three in southcentral Pennsylvania; two in northcentral Pennsylvania, both in Shamokin, Northumberland County; four in sothwestern Pennsylvania, including two in Johnstown, Cambria County; and two in northwest Pennsylvania, both in New Castle, Lawrence County.
“The permitting of these locations as part of Phase II of the medical marijuana program will ensure more people have access to medical marijuana close to home,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said. “This step continues the growth of our scientific, medically-based medical marijuana program.”
The most surprising thing about Tuesday’s announcement is that there is “so little diversity” among who received permits, said Patrick Nightingale, executive director of the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society, a Pittsbrugh-based non-profit advocacy group.
The state awarded permits in six different regions of the state. A handful of companies have gotten permits in multiple regions meaning that instead of having 50 different dispensary operators, the state stands to have far fewer operators competing against each other, he said.
Nightingale said that as a patient advocate, he worries that the lack of competition will mean that prices for medical marijuana won’t be as inexpensive as they could be.
“I’d hoped that once more dispensaries opened, prices would come down,” Nightingale said. “But with the limited number of license holders, will that take place?”
Nightingale said state law does provide regulators with the ability to cap prices. He doubts there will be any consideration of that until all of the dispensaries are open and it’s clearer what prices will look like in the long run, he said.
There are already close to 70,000 people who have identification cards that allow them to get medical marijuana from dispensaries, according to the Department of Health.
Pennsylvania allows people to get medical marijuana for 21 medical conditions, including chronic pain, seizure disorders, autism, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Nightingale said he’s been pleased at the number of people who’ve already registered as medical marijuana patients.
He said that state officials at one point suggested there would be 200,000-250,000 medical marijuana patients in Pennsylvania.
The state’s Medical Marijuana Advisory Board has announced a process for approving new medical conditions and Nightingale said that as more conditions are added, the number of people approved to use medical marijuana will increase, as well.
He plans to lobby the board to approve general anxiety disorder as an approved condition and said bipolar disorder and depression would also be suitable.
Tuesday’s announcement is one of the last major steps in the state’s rollout of the medical marijuana program. The state has already approved 25 grower/processor permits.
The only remaining piece of the state’s medical marijuana program that has yet to be announced are permits for growers to supply eight medical facilities with marijuana for research purposes.
The state’s move to award those permits were challenged in court November by a group of marijuana growers who object to the process for selecting the research project growers.
The move to award those research permits hit another speed bump earlier this month when the Department of Health announced that none of the initial applicants had been approved. Instead, the state will reopen the applications process and try in the spring to award them.
The Department of Health hasn’t offered a clear explanation for why the applications weren’t awarded.
“Our goal is to ensure that our research program operates at the highest standards,” Levine said earlier this month. “We are disappointed that awards were not made, but must uphold the standards set out in the regulations.”
Those applicants were vying for the right to supply eight medical facilities chosen to do research-related to medical marijuana: Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia; Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, Philadelphia; Penn State College of Medicine, Hershey; Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia; The Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh; Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine-Erie (LECOM); and Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Philadelphia.
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