The menu of options available at medical cannabis dispensaries may soon grow to include "dry leaf and flower," the green and fragrant herb once sold illicitly in dime bags.
On Monday, the governor's Medical Marijuana Advisory Board met in Harrisburg to consider changes to the program. Since mid-February, six dispensaries have been selling highly processed — and pricey — concentrates, pills and tinctures.
Demand for the products has been extraordinarily strong. Most of the dispensaries sold out of inventory last week. A spokesman for Cresco Yeltrah, the only grower-processor currently shipping medicines, said he expected modest deliveries to dispensaries to resume as soon as Wednesday, weather permitting.
Allowing sales of dry leaf and flower — with such brand names as Death Star and Bubba Berry — would accelerate production. It also would cut the cost to consumers.
"It would be great for patients," said Charlie Bachtell, co-founder of Cresco Yeltrah. "Of all forms of medical marijuana, flower offers the fastest speed to efficacy and the lowest price point per milligram of active ingredient."
Of the 29 states that have laws legalizing some form of cannabis, only Pennsylvania and Minnesota currently ban the sale of non-processed forms of marijuana.
Luke Schultz, a patient advocate who serves on the 15-member Advisory Board, said the three committees that comprise the group "all came back with a positive recommendation" to approve sales of dry leaf and flower. The board is slated to review the recommendations on April 9 and forward a report to the Secretary of Health, Rachel Levine, who chairs the group. Then the legislature will vote on whether to accept the recommendations. It's uncertain when marijuana in its natural state could be for sale at dispensaries.
Pennsylvania law does not allow the sale of a smokable form of marijuana. It does allow for vaporization, which requires a battery-powered electronic device, some of which are similar to e-cigarettes. But after a patient makes a purchase, there is no way for the state to monitor methods of consumption. The same marijuana can be packed into a bowl or rolled into a joint.
The panel discussed other program changes, though none seem as likely to be adopted as the sale of dry leaf and flower. It considered, but decided against, expanding the total number of growers and dispensaries that will eventually serve what is expected to be one of the nation's largest medical marijuana markets. It also briefly mulled allowing more professionals — nurse practitioners, for example — who could certify patients to participate in the program. That idea, too, was discarded.
The medical subcommittee advised expanding the list of 17 qualifying health conditions to include terminal illness and palliative care, according to Department of Health spokesman Nate Wardle.
"Fortunately, they didn't recommend to take anything away," said Schultz. "In that regard we're doing OK."
Doctors have requested the state stop publishing the names of participating physicians.
"Initially, there was so much excitement about the program that guys were calling a gynecologist on the list," Schultz said. "That's died down somewhat, but it would take an amendment by the legislature to end it. Our recommendation would be to not allow the list to be public, though."
As of Tuesday, almost 21,500 patients have registered for the program and more than 6,000 of those have been certified by a physician. Since sales began Feb. 16, about 2,200 patients have visited the six open dispensaries to buy medicinal cannabis. When the program is fully implemented, at least 12 grower-processors will supply up to 81 dispensaries statewide.