Pennsylvania's medical cannabis law requires patients to go through registered doctors to get into the program, but none are available yet. Now, some overenthusiastic groups are jumping the start in an attempt to drum up business. Welcome to the bizarre world of for-profit physicians opening up new cannabis specialty shops in the area.

Compassion Certification Centers and Pa. cannabis registration

On Oct. 18, the Twitter account for Compassionate Certification Centers (CCC), a group of Pennsylvania doctors, claimed that their medical cannabis registration with the Pennsylvania Department of Health was complete.

This was surprising because there had been no new announcements from the Pa. cannabis program about physicians, so I contacted Health Department spokesperson April Hutcheson to learn more. She responded:

"While more than 300 doctors have started the online registration, none are approved practitioners at this time. They must complete their continuing education first, and then we review their registration information to make sure that they meet the requirements, like their license is in good standing and they have no financial interest in a medical marijuana organization for example. When we have approved practitioners, we will post that on our website."

I shared the first line of Hutcheson's reply to CCC on Twitter, because I wanted to clear up the confusion of their initial tweet. CCC responded by reiterating that several doctors in their group completed the Pa. Health Department training course and had met with representatives of the department. They also acknowledged that having their doctors listed as practitioners was not "official" until the list was published by the state.

A visit to CCC's website showed several claims that were downright disturbing: They offer cannabidiol (CBD) "consultations" and, even more brazenly, Compassionate Certification Centers sells so called "hemp CBD" products right through an online shop.

What is CBD and why does it matter?

Cannabidiol, also known as CBD, is a chemical compound found in the cannabis plant. It is an amazing molecule, a powerful anti-inflammatory that also helps with severe seizure disorders and a wide range of other serious medical conditions. It's naturally derived, nontoxic, doesn't have a lethal dose, and scientists around the world are discovering new potentials all the time.

Because CBD comes from cannabis, it remains illegal outside of state-level marijuana regulations. That means, technically, CBD shouldn't be sold outside of the medical cannabis program in Pennsylvania.

Under federal law, as a stand-alone substance, CBD is considered a Schedule I drug right next to THC, LSD and heroin. That means it can't be shipped over state lines — even between states that have fully legal marijuana.

Still, some lawyers and a few manufactures of "dietary supplements" claim that CBD is already just as legal as pumpkin pie in all 50 states … as long as it comes from "hemp."

While the esoteric legal debate over the semantics of labeling continues, a wide range of products that claim to contain CBD are openly available in Pennsylvania today.

From organic co-op groceries to tobacco shops, one can find counter displays stocked with little bottles, pills, vape pen cartridges and even dog treats that claim to contain the cannabinoid. A proudly circulated press release recently landed in my inbox touting a dedicated store for CBD products opening near Willow Grove Mall and websites like Compassionate Certification Centers will help get the products shipped it right to your door.

They all might as well just be selling some good old-fashioned weed, because CBD is just as legal. (Which is to say: Currently it's not legal.)

Buying on faith

Seriously ill Pa. residents, who have been waiting years for a medical cannabis program, can be lured by products with "CBD" on the label. Forking over $50 to $150 per bottle, they might indeed be getting some cannabinoids, but not always.

Some products claim to contain tiny amounts, 0.5 milligrams of CBD in an entire bottle of mint-flavored liquid. Drinking the whole thing would only deliver a trace morsel of the cannabinoid.

Meanwhile, a real medical cannabis product, with actual marijuana-derived CBD, will test in a lab at perhaps 6.0 percent and, in comparison to some knock-offs, has thousands of times more of the cannabinoid in the oil solutions.

There's only one totally legal, walk-up way to get safe, laboratory-tested CBD products with high enough concentrations to yield a health effect, especially for the seriously ill: Buy them from a top-notch provider or a retail store in a state that actually regulates marijuana for all adults.

Doctors and lawyers and CBD

CCC is owned by Syndikos Investments LLC, whose main business is staging and promoting a large cannabis industry conference. On Oct. 20, a press release from CCC and Syndikos arrived in my inbox banging the drums about cosponsoring a health fair in Pittsburgh.

One of the event's cosponsors was none other than Cresco-Yeltrah, one of the 12 growers/processors with a medical cannabis permit in Pennsylvania. This caught my eye because Act 16, the Pa. medical cannabis law, has a specific provision that prohibits doctors registered as program practitioners from having any "direct or economic interest" with the folks holding the grower/processor permits.

Among the other health fair cosponsors was one of the country's biggest "legal in all 50 hemp-derived CBD" companies: the makers of the products that line the shelves of Compassionate Certification Centers' online store.

Patrick Nightingale, a longtime friend and fellow advocate, runs a specialized cannabis compliance law firm and also cofounded an industry support group called the Pa. Medical Cannabis Society. CCC is one of his clients.

According to Nightingale, CCC doctors have not accepted any fees from Pa. residents for medical cannabis recommendations or the so-called CBD consultations.

"No physician affiliated with CCC has any direct or economic interest in a medical marijuana organization as defined by the Act," said Nightingale.

Nightingale said that he was aware that CCC sells a variety of products claiming to contain CBD through their website but, "CCC will not direct patients to any particular brand of CBD products."

Although they are listed under different brand names, the products in CCC's online shop all come from the same manufacturer.

Nightingale pointed out that his client has no direct or economic interest with the products' makers. Still, by offering certain products through it website, it's hard not to see CCC as giving its blessing. That may be a problem if CCC has products that attempt to compete with the medical cannabis oils available to patients in Pennsylvania dispensaries next year.

Now it's up to Pa. health officials

Pa. regulators must carefully assure that cannabis practitioners such as CCC are in the program for patients and not just for profits.

Now that we have some cannabinoid-testing labs for the medical cannabis program coming online, perhaps the Health Department can also look into the labeling claims on some of the CBD products residents are already buying.

Of course, all of these complex machinations and unknown products can be set aside when we just fully legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania.