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State announces medical marijuana dispensary permits

| Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016, 11:30 a.m.
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Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Karen Murphy and John Collins, director of the state's director of the Office of Medical Marijuana, on Wednesday Dec. 21, 2016, in Harrisburg announced details about the number of medical marijuana dispensary permits Pennsylvania counties will receive.

Allegheny County will receive two dispensary permits and Westmoreland County one as the state's medical marijuana program moves forward, officials said Wednesday.

Butler and Washington counties each will receive one dispensary permit, Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Karen Murphy said during a briefing at the Capitol with John Collins, director of the state's Office of Medical Marijuana.

Applications to operate dispensaries can be submitted between Feb. 20 and March 20. The state plans to post applications on its website Jan. 17.

Each approved dispensary is allowed two secondary locations. The locations cannot be in the same county as the main dispensary, Collins said, but they must remain in the same state-designated geographical region as the primary dispensary.

For example, Allegheny and Westmoreland counties are situated in the Southwest region, comprised of 11 counties. So a dispensary in Allegheny County could set up two secondary locations in the Southwest region but not in Allegheny County.

In total, the state plans to issue 27 dispensary permits during the first phase of the program's rollout. State law authorizes up to 50 dispensary permits, which translates to 150 dispensaries when including secondary locations.

The locations are based on potential patient access, health officials said.

Regulations require all dispensaries to be at least 1,000 feet from any school or day care center. A dispensary can't be inside another retail business. It also can't be inside a doctor's office or on the same site used for marijuana growing and processing.

No one under 18 can enter a dispensary without an adult.

The state also plans to issue 12 grower/processor permits, or two per region.

The Southwest region houses Allegheny, Westmoreland, Butler, Washington. Beaver, Cambria, Armstrong, Somerset, Greene, Fayette and Indiana counties.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation on April 17 legalizing medical marijuana. The complete implementation of the program was expected to take 18 to 24 months and includes setting up dispensaries and laboratories.

Medical marijuana will be available in pills, oils, tinctures or ointments. Murphy and Collins said they expect up to 900 grower/processor and dispensary applicants.

The Health Department is regulating the program, which forbids smoking marijuana in dry leaf form. Dispensaries are allowed to sell equipment, such as vaping devices for liquid forms, to administer medical marijuana. Under state law, patients — after consulting with doctors — can apply for a state-issued medical marijuana card if a doctor certifies that they have one of 17 qualified medical conditions, including epilepsy, cancer, multiple sclerosis and seizure disorders.

Murphy said she expects the program to be up and running in mid-2018.

In the interim, the state has approved 134 "safe harbor" applications for patients. Safe harbor allows caregivers to administer medical marijuana obtained from outside Pennsylvania to minors in their care.

The Health Department recently created a physicians' working group, which recommended guidelines for dosage training, program monitoring and flexibility in rules for urban and rural areas.

"We cannot underestimate the role of physicians in making sure that patients can access medical marijuana," Murphy said.

The Office of Medical Marijuana has eight employees, including a liaison who already is meeting with patients. About 5,000 people have given public feedback on the program, Murphy said. She said those who provided comments listed pain and post-traumatic stress as the most common medical conditions necessitating potential treatment.

"While this is a regulatory process," Murphy said, "we always keep in mind this is a medically focused program."

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or bschmitt@tribweb.com.

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