They came from all over, seeking the same thing: relief.
There was Josh Lazarus, who has built up a resistance to opiates as he tries to relieve pain from a back condition that nearly paralyzed him. Same with John Novack, who is still dealing with pain after a tumor was removed from his spine almost 40 years ago.
There was Micah Carr, who, like so many others in line, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Zane Baker has battled PTSD and painkillers since a horrible car accident. And Sherin Wells who just wants her fibromyalgia and other pains to go away so she can play with her kids.
They stood together in a growing line Friday morning outside Keystone Canna Remedies on Stefko Boulevard in Bethlehem. They commiserated and shared their stories, waiting for what they hoped will help them.
About 11 a.m., the doors opened. About an hour later, Lazarus — a 35-year-old from York, Pennsylvania, who had waited outside since 5 a.m. — walked out with the first dose of medical marijuana officially sold in the Lehigh Valley.
“This is a historic day in my mind,” he said. “I’ve been waiting 35 years for this. (Pennsylvania) is the last place in a million years I thought this would happen.”
Keystone Canna Remedies was the state’s first medical marijuana dispensary approved for operation, and on Friday became one of the earliest to begin sales.
Ten dispensaries and an equal number of growers have been approved to operate in Pennsylvania, each undergoing health department inspections. More than 17,000 patients have registered to participate in the medical marijuana program and 4,000 have been certified by physicians, according to a news release from Gov. Tom Wolf’s office earlier in the week announcing the start of sales.
In Pennsylvania, use of medical marijuana is limited to specific conditions, and the medication can come in forms including pills, oils, ointments or vapor.
A dispensary in Butler, near Pittsburgh, was the first to begin sales on Thursday, the governor’s office said. Two others in Pittsburgh and Enola were to open with Keystone in Bethlehem on Friday.
Administrators at the Bethlehem facility — which operates with strict security and would not allow media inside on Friday — said they expect hundreds of patients, both appointments and walk-ins, in the coming days.
The line began forming about 9 a.m. Friday with a handful of people and grew to almost two dozen by the time doors opened. Some who were waiting talked openly with reporters about their prior use of marijuana to treat their pain.
“It’s the only thing that helps. I suffer daily,” said Carr, a 37-year-old from Royersford, Pennsylvania..
Mike, a Quakertown resident who declined to provide his last name, said he started using marijuana about five years ago to treat his PTSD.
“It was a life-changer,” he said. “I’ll never go back to using pills again, that’s for sure. The side effects just aren’t worth it.”
Others felt a sense of vindication, that hurdles had been overcome to obtain the help they need in the two years since Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program was enacted.
“I’ve spent a lot of my life being persecuted for this, for my need for this medicine,” said Severin Johnson, 35, a member of the Lehigh Valley Cannabis Coalition. “I had to choose between my health and a lot of things normal people should have access to.”
Zane Baker, a 21-year-old from Emmaus, said that with time, medical marijuana may become as normal as a trip to the pharmacy.
“It’s going to become more mainstream over time,” said Baker, who added that the medication gives him peace of mind from his PTSD following a bad car wreck. “There have been so many walls built up over time to stop it from becoming mainstream, but they’re all coming down now.”
There were also concerns about the program, mostly about cost and the procedure to obtain the medication. John Novack, 60, of Bethlehem, said that obtaining medical marijuana is still more difficult than potentially dangerous opioids.
“The one thing that won’t kill you,” he said, referring to medical marijuana, “they’re pretty much putting you through hell to get.”
Still, there was optimism that Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program will provide these patients the relief they seek.
“I can’t stay in bed all the time,” said one stay-at-home mom from Nazareth, who declined to identify herself but said she suffers from chronic pain and fatigue.
“Hopefully this is the answer. We’ll see.”