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Medical marijuana expands to leaf form in Pennsylvania

Ben Schmitt
| Monday, April 16, 2018, 2:12 p.m.
A leaf of marijuana
Associated Press
A leaf of marijuana

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine on Monday approved a recommendation to allow the sale of medical marijuana in leaf form.

Her decision means Pennsylvanians will soon be able to buy leaf medical marijuana for vaporization. The law forbids residents from smoking it.

"We anticipate dry leaf will be available in dispensaries later this summer," Levine said during a news conference in Harrisburg.

She said dry leaf will most likely be cheaper than other legal forms for patients.

"I had faith that Dr. Levine would do what was right for the patients," said medical marijuana advocate Diana Briggs of Westmoreland County's Washington Township. "This administration has proven they want to help all patients access this program."

Briggs is a medical marijuana caregiver for her 17-year-old son, Ryan, who suffers from epilepsy.

A state medical marijuana advisory board voted last week to recommend allowing dried leaf marijuana into the market.

Levine also accepted the board's recommendation to allow medical marijuana as a treatment for opioid abuse and agreed to expand the list of qualifying medical conditions from 17 to 21. She adopted a recommendation that children who need medical marijuana be certified by a pediatrician, but will delay its implementation.

"Requiring children to see a pediatrician to participate in the program is an important recommendation, but we are going to delay implementation for at least a year to allow more pediatricians and pediatric specialists to join the program," Levine said.

Statewide, medical marijuana is already legal in pills, oils, tinctures, concentrates for vaping or ointments.

As of Monday, more than 30,000 residents had registered for the medical marijuana program, about 12,700 of whom have been certified by physicians. More than 930 doctors have been registered to participate, of whom 585 have completed the state's four-hour training course required for certification.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed a medical marijuana bill into law in April 2016. Dispensaries opened in February.

Allowing leaf form could cut down on dispensary shortages that have occurred since the program began, said Becky Dansky, legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C.

"By being able to provide medical marijuana in plant form, producers will be able to get medicine into the hands of patients much more quickly and for much lower cost to patients," she said in a statement.

Patrick Nightingale, a Pittsburgh attorney and executive director of the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society, said leaf products generally sell for $10 to $20 a gram in other states with legalized medical marijuana. A processed marijuana product can cost $65 a gram, he said.

"Patients need to have the ability to find out what works for them and, since we don't have insurance coverage, what is best for their bottom line," he said. "What's great about this is it gives patients the maximum opportunity to find what works for them at a price point that is also going to work for them."

Levine also approved the board's recommendation to allow participating doctors to have their names kept off the public registry. She said she hopes the change encourages more doctors to participate.

Chris Goldstein, a cannabis consumer advocate in Philadelphia, applauded the state for allowing leaf medical marijuana. But he said he was concerned that patients will have trouble locating doctors if they are not on a public registry.

Goldstein expected patients to smoke marijuana, even though the law requires vaporization.

"The tried and tested method of medical cannabis is simply smoking it," he said.

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

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