Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Experts answer council’s medical marijuana questions

- By Emily McConville

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Last month, the Pennsylvan­ia Department of Health issued permits to one grower and two dispensers of medical marijuana in Allegheny County. Those facilities, along with three other dispensers in southweste­rn Pennsylvan­ia and dozens of facilities around the state, will open by January.

On Thursday, Pittsburgh City Council invited the leaders of the growing operation and one of the dispensers, as well as medical and legal experts and state Sen. Daylin Leach, to a meeting to discuss issues surroundin­g medical marijuana in Pittsburgh. Questions from council members concerned everything from legal issues to medical benefits.

Medical marijuana was legalized in Pennsylvan­ia in April 2016. Twenty-seven dispensers, who will operate a total of 52 dispensari­es, received permits in June.

Mr. Leach, D-Montgomery County, who co-wrote the medical marijuana bill, said the law says that to receive marijuana, a person with one of 17 conditions must go to a doctor for a recommenda­tion for a treatment plan and apply for certificat­ion through the Department of Health.

Physician involvemen­t, therefore, is the crux of the system, Mr. Leach said.

“One of the most important things is, patients need to be able to legally access doctors,” he said.

Dr. Bryan Doner, CEO of Compassion­ate Certificat­ion Centers, a Delawareba­sed marijuana marketing and consulting company, said marijuana as a pain reliever is an alternativ­e to opioids without a documented risk of overdose. He said Pennsylvan­ia law prohibits smoking marijuana, but patients can take it in many ways, including as a pill, oil or cream.

Marijuana remains illegal on the federal level, meaning doctors are often unwilling to write a prescripti­on for the drug, Dr. Doner said. Doctors have to take a four-hour course to be able to recommend patients.

Catia Kossovsky, an attorney with Pittsburgh-based Tucker Arensberg, said marijuana’s federal illegality also means it is difficult for marijuana-related businesses to find banks or insurers who want to comply with federal regulation­s.

In addition, regular pharmacies cannot legally dispense marijuana, making the dispensari­es necessary in the first place, Mr. Leach said. Ms. Kossovsky said the dispensari­es must have a doctor orpharmaci­st on staff.

Keystone Relief Center, a dispensary that will open in Squirrel Hill, also has pharmacist­s and physicians as investors, said its board chairman, Dr. Robert Capretto.

Gabe Perlow, whose company, PurePenn, will grow medical marijuana in McKeesport, said the firm grew from grassroots efforts and patient advocacy.

“It’s more about getting medicine to patients as quick as possible, not about the industry,” Mr. Perlow said.

Mr. Perlow said all marijuana products can be tracked back to their original source. Security for facilities themselves is more tightly regulated than those that dispense opioids, Mr. Leach said.

“We treat this like Fort Knox,” he said.

Mr. Leach said he hopes the Department of Health will take more applicatio­ns for permits this fall or early winter. City Council President Bruce Kraus said he would like to take a tour of marijuana-related facilities in Pittsburgh.

“I think we have a real public education process in front of us,” he said.

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