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Dispensers see state medical pot program as on track

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Medical marijuana dispensers are giving positive reviews to the state's program, with several providers hoping to open and begin serving patients in Central Pennsylvania by spring.

"I give the Department of Health a lot of credit,” said Ryan Smith, COO of Bay LLC. The company plans to operate three dispensaries under the name Cure Pennsylvania in Manheim Township in, Lancaster County, Upper Dublin Township in Montgomery County and East Pikeland Township in Chester County with the East Pikeland location slated to open in March.

Smith pointed to Maryland as a state whose medical marijuana program was beset by delays and product shortages.

"To folks who want medicine on the market faster, it may seem like this is taking a long time," Smith said. "But if you look at other states and you look at the way these processes have worked, Pennsylvania is best in class."

The state Department of Health gave its first approval for a medical marijuana dispensary last week with more expected. In all, the state has assigned permits to 27 companies to open dispensaries.

Before opening, dispensaries must wait for final approval from state inspectors. But if approved dispensaries rush to open, said Smith, it can result in premature closures and product shortages.

"We want to be open as soon as possible while making sure we don’t disappoint patients," said Smith. "People driving an hour or something like that and us being closed is not the kind of patient experience we want to have, especially with a brand new market."

Dispensaries are mostly waiting on growers and processors to distribute the product. The Department of Health website lists 12 permitted suppliers, of which nine have received final approval. A representative from the Department of Health said the remaining three distributors are still going through the review process.

"Ultimately, marijuana is an agricultural product you have to grow," said Smith. "From the time you put a plant in the ground from the time you have medicine that has been harvested, processed, tested through the testing labs, and on our shelves packaged and ready to sell to patients, you’re typically looking at something like five months."

Cansortium Pennsylvania LLC, which is permitted to open a dispensary in Penn Township in York County under the name Knox Medical, likewise gave positive reviews of the state’s process. Knox Medical operates six dispensaries across the state of Florida.

"As one would expect, the process is very meticulous," said Adam Sharon, a spokesperson for the Florida-based firm. "The application review procedures are very detailed and precise, and the bar is set at a very high level along every step of the way in Pennsylvania, which is a requirement that Knox Medical understands and welcomes."

Lebanon Wellness Center - which is planning its first entry into the medical marijuana market - is aiming to have its three locations in Gettysburg, Lebanon, and Altoona operational by mid-March as well.

State health regulators offered good guidance on what was expected, said Rob Kemp, a managing partner at Lebanon Wellness Center. "We’re a group of Pennsylvanians and we apply based on what the expectations were."

Lebanon Wellness Center held community education events near its three dispensaries to both inform and to hear from prospective patients.

"We’ve had tremendous attendance and response and interest from the community," said Kemp.

"It’s been kind of emotional, too," he added. "We’ve heard from a lot of people who are looking for alternative to opioids, a lot of people who want to feel good again. There’s been tears, there’s been stories. We’ve heard a lot of amazing stories through this process."

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