HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania officials said Wednesday that they will begin accepting applications early next year for medical marijuana growers and dispensaries, with a target date of mid-2018 for legal sales to begin in the state.

Philadelphia and six other southeastern counties could be home to up to 30 dispensaries, at least in the first phase of the medical marijuana program's rollout.

The drug will be sold in pills, ointment and oil form. It will not be smokable.

Health Secretary Karen Murphy told reporters at a news conference that firms can apply between Feb. 20 and March 20 to grow or sell the drug to patients with proper prescriptions. Applications will be available at the Department of Health's website, www.health.pa.gov, beginning Jan. 17.

Competition is expected to be stiff. Officials said they expect more than 900 applications. In fact, Murphy's update Wednesday for reporters was teeming with industry lobbyists, who even lobbed a few questions at her about the application process.

"The purpose behind this medically focused program is to provide medication to those who desperately need it," Murphy said.

In the first phase, she said, the department will license up to 12 growers and up to 81 locations for dispensing medical marijuana. Those are the ones expected to be up and running by mid-2018, she said.

The bill that passed the Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Democratic Gov. Wolf this past spring permits up to 150 dispensaries and 25 growers statewide.

In the first phase, health officials said, the southeastern region of the state will be allowed up to 30 dispensaries. That region includes Philadelphia, Montgomery, Bucks, Chester and Delaware counties.

In all, there will be six regions statewide. The southwest district, which includes Allegheny, Butler and Westmoreland coutnies, will be allowed up to 15 dispensary locations in the first phase.

Since medical marijuana was legalized in April, the Health Department has granted so-called "safe harbor" status to parents and caregivers of children suffering from conditions for which the law allows the drug to be used as treatment.

The status allows them to purchase medical-marijuana products from out-of-state, but health officials on Wednesday said they did not have details on where or how much of the drug is being purchased.

Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia now have medical marijuana and cannabis programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Adults are not yet permitted to legally use medical marijuana in Pennsylvania. Murphy said Wednesday that 134 safe harbor applications have been approved so far.