Medical Marijuana Industry Growing In Northeast Pennsylvania

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Photo Credit: Nicholas Belton

Jeff Zick relied on the black market to get the only medicine that makes his post-traumatic stress disorder manageable — marijuana.

“For me, medical marijuana helps me sleep and function (in) a normal daily life without taking harmful pharmaceuticals with their nasty side effects,” said Zick, of Hop Bottom, who owns Big Yield Hydroponics in Scranton and is president of the Pennsylvania Cannabis Festival. “This has been the only thing that’s worked for me in the last 10 years.”

Under Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program, signed into law in April of 2016, Zick qualifies for a medical card allowing him to legally purchase from dispensaries across the state the marijuana products that help him work and sleep. While he said he already saw a doctor and is approved for the card, local dispensaries are not ready yet to sell marijuana-based medicine.

“Right now, we are forced to go to the black market and be criminals until they get the system up and running,” said Zick, who plans to travel to Western Pennsylvania later this month to buy the medicine legitimately from Cresco Yeltrah LLC’s Butler County dispensary, CY+, when it becomes available.

With a company already cultivating cannabis in Scranton and several area dispensaries preparing to serve patients, Northeast Pennsylvania’s budding medical marijuana industry is not far behind.

The state Department of Health recently approved Luzerne County’s first medical marijuana dispensary, Justice Grown, to begin operating in the Gateway Shopping Center in Edwardsville. The dispensary likely won’t have medical marijuana products to sell until mid-March, but will hold a ribbon-cutting and open house Friday and weekly information sessions thereafter until the medicine arrives, Chief Operating Officer Abbe Kruger said.

So far, the health department approved only six dispensaries statewide, including Justice Grown. The department “is working diligently to inspect and approve dispensaries,” according to the DOH press office.

At the Keyser Oak Shopping Center space that eventually will house Scranton’s lone medical marijuana dispensary — run by Columbia Care Pennsylvania LLC — contractors carried wooden boards through the doors earlier this month. Brown paper covered most of the storefront’s windows, aside from several taped construction permits and a notice from the state.

Columbia Care also plans to open dispensaries in Wilkes-Barre in Luzerne County and Blakeslee in Monroe County. Efforts to reach Columbia Care officials were not successful.

When the Scranton dispensary opens, it will serve as Zick’s main source of the medicine and may carry products processed from marijuana grown only a couple of miles away in the city’s Green Ridge section. That is where Pennsylvania Medical Solutions LLC, a subsidiary of Vireo Health, received state approval in December, to start growing marijuana and making it into medicine.

“We’ll need to develop a wholesale relationship with that dispensary … but I think there will be a special sense of kinship to the Scranton dispensary being that we’re both operating in Scranton and committed to serving the needs of area patients,” Pennsylvania Medical Solutions Chief Operating Officer Ari Hoffnung said. “We are in the process of introducing ourselves to dispensaries throughout the state. The way the state of Pennsylvania has arranged the market, there will be healthy wholesale competition.”

Pennsylvania regulations bar the sale of dry flower marijuana as medicine, meaning producers must extract cannabis oil from the plant matter and infuse it into pharmaceutical products, such as pills, gels, ointments and vaporization cartridges.

Typically the marijuana cultivation process takes 12 to 16 weeks, followed by a drying and processing period, Hoffnung said, noting that all the company’s products will be third-party tested at state-approved labs before being sold on a wholesale basis to dispensaries.

Pennsylvania Medical Solutions expects to have products available during the third quarter of this year, Hoffnung said.

At Justice Grown in Edwardsville, Kruger said the company has yet to finalize a deal to buy marijuana-based medicine from a grower/processor.

“There are only a handful of growers that are going to have products available in late-February, early-March,” she said. “We can buy from any of the 12 grow(er)-processors in the state that are permitted. … I think it is going to depend on what particular growers grow and what the feedback is with respect to their product. How they market it and package it will also have a lot to do with it.”

Kruger expects to cater to a large population of geriatric patients, making products like pre-dosed syringes — that are “easier for hospice patients, as a tincture, to take” — conducive to that demographic, she said.

Justice Grown will consider doing business with all of the state’s growers/processors, including Pennsylvania Medical Solutions and White Haven-based Standard Farms LLC, Kruger said.

“We’re talking to dispensaries who are putting in extraordinary amounts of work in creating welcoming environments and safe environments for patients,” Hoffnung said. “We look forward to working with them. … Thanks to the governor and thanks to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, they are really building a terrific medical cannabis industry, which I think will become a national — if not global — model for the country and for others to emulate.”

Since the medical marijuana program was signed into law, at least 683 physicians and more than 15,700 registered to participate in it, according to state data.

Prospective patients must register at medicalmarijuana.pa.gov and obtain a physician’s signature showing they suffer from one of 17 qualifying medical conditions, including PTSD. After paying for a medical marijuana ID card, patients can visit a dispensary to buy the product.

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