Pennsylvania’s Republican Senator Mike Folmer and Democratic Senator Daylin Leach, ranked 36 and 37 respectively in the CBE 2016 Political 100,  are two happy guys. The mechanisms behind the medical marijuana bill they wrote, which became law on April 13, 2016, are now in full run mode with the prospect of 12 licensed grows and 81 licensed dispensaries in operation by January.

Pennsylvania is expected to be one of the largest medical marijuana markets in the country, in a state with population of 13 million and a list of 17 qualifying medical conditions.

In an update to Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program, which is scheduled to be fully operational by early 2018, Department of Health Secretary Karen Murphy held a brief press conference on Wednesday, April 26, along with Dr. John Collins, director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Medical Marijuana, and announced that they have received 500 packages of applications that contained one or more grower/dispenser applications each.

They have logged in 258 applications: 132 growers/processors and 126 dispensaries. Winners for the 12 initial grower licenses, and winners of the initial 27 permits that would allow up to 81 dispensaries, will be notified on June 30.

The heaviest concentration of applicants for both types of operations came from the southeast part of the state: 31 grower/processors, and 61 dispensaries.

That June 30 deadline sounds like a quick turnaround, given the amount of applicants to go through. But there is a sense of determined efficiency, and lessons learned from other state’s programs, in rolling out Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program.

CBE asked Steve Hoenstine, spokesperson for Senator Leach, about that process. “From everything that we have seen and working with the Department of of Health, we think that they are an extremely capable and professional group of folks,” Hoenstine said. “They have been thoughtful, they have been ethical, they have been fair. And frankly they are working their asses off. If they said that they will get it done by June 30, we have every confidence in them that they can. They never given us any reason to doubt their capabilities.”

Each application package will go through a three-step process: opening the package; processing the application for completion of required information and the ability to be electronically entered into the system; and assigning each one a logging number then forwarding the application to the scoring committee.

The department also selected MJ Freeway as the seed-to-sale tracking entity.

The department worked with a group of physicians in developing the program. One of the lessons learned in other states is that physicians questioning the medical marijuana program often resulted in state organizers going back and retooling the rules, slowing down of the process. When asked about that issue as a possible logjam for Pennsylvania, Murphy was straightforward: “We don’t anticipate that being a problem,” she said during the news conference.

Dr. Bryan Doner, CEO, medical director and co-founder of Compassionate Certification Centers in Pittsburgh, and a physician consultant for applicant TriMountain Pure grower/processor, said that he thinks getting physicians involved early is one of the things he found encouraging about the process. “They encouraged feedback from other physicians and providers. And they provided a platform to do so,” he said. “To get some input on that as well, so that the actual providers on the ground level can have a say and put their two cents in, is a really proactive thing to do.”

Given the total number of applications and the June deadline, somewhere around ten applications a day need to be scored by an anonymous interagency working committee, checking through both pass/fail and point accumulation criteria such as the applicant’s plan for diversity, whether the business operators are of good moral character with no evidence of fraudulent practices, and whether the applicant can show a detailed plan of operation including inventory, storage and security.

The applicant also must provide a timetable for how the facility will be operational within six months from getting the license.

The process was set up so that only truly bankrolled investors could apply. It wasn’t cheap. Grower/processor applicants had to submit a non-refundable fee of $10,000, pay a permit fee of $200,000 which is refundable if the permit is not granted, and prove that they have $2 million in capital, with $500,000 of that amount deposited into a financial institution.

Dispensary applicants had to also submit a $,5000 non-refundable fee, pay a permit fee of $30,000, also refundable if the permit is not granted, and provide proof of $150,000 in capital.

That kind of investment is one reason why some larger companies participated, along with organizations backed by law firms, and entrepreneurs who came with a physician already attached to their applicant. There is no residency requirement, so firms from outside the state could also apply. But the scoring system favors an applicant with local community roots.

The speed of the Pennsylvania medical marijuana system is also the result of the work of Governor Tom Wolf, replacing Governor Tom Corbett, who was a “gateway drug” marijuana legalization opponent and the only Republican governor to lose his seat to a Democratic challenger in 2014. “The election brought in a new governor who couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about signing the medical marijuana bill,” Leach said during a session at the international medical marijuana conference held recently in Pittsburgh. “And the reason our regulations are being created at a record pace and the reason they are so good is because it matters. If you are the governor who wants this to happen, it’s going to happen.”

While applicant graders do their tallies, work on the last section of the Pennsylvania medical marijuana statute, Chapters 19 and 20, about regulations for establishing medical marijuana research and creating clinical registrants, is nearly done. “These are protocols by which we can have approved medical centers partner with clinical registrants, which are growers, processors and distributors, to provide cannabis for medical research,” Leach said. “In some cases there is funding for that. And it’s a separate license category.”

Doner said that he is firm believer that education is the key, and that means not only clinical education, but education for physicians, patients and business owners. “We all need to understand this on a similar level for this medical marijuana program in Pennsylvania to be successful and safe too,” he said.

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