Five years after the passage of Act 16, which legalized the use of cannabis for a small list of medical conditions, Pennsylvania’s marijuana industry has more patients than ever—and more products to offer. “Over time, it’s become more accessible to many more people,” said Becca Hunter, marketing manager for Keystone Shops’ dispensaries in Devon and King of Prussia.
Fueling the influx of new patients is an expanding list of qualifying conditions. Now there are 23 approved for medical marijuana treatment, up from 17. New to the list: opioid use and anxiety disorders. “Once anxiety was added, there were thousands of new patients registering every month,” says Skip Shuda, owner of Green Rush Advisors, the Philadelphia-area cannabis consultancy.
Meanwhile, there remains a lack of medical research involving marijuana’s efficacy—even if the paucity of clinical data is overwhelmed by the avalanche of positive anecdotal evidence. “It would be incorrect to say that everybody benefits,” says Hunter.
Another drawback: the fuzzy guidelines surrounding the quantity and type of cannabis that’s best for each medical condition. The drug affects everyone differently, so dispensary staff work with patients to customize dosing and products.
With new conditions comes demand for new products, the wide variety of which surprises many new patients. “They come in thinking cannabis is just the flower,” says Beth Ferracone, marketing manager for Curaleaf, which has dispensaries in King of Prussia and Morton.
One of the most popular is Rick Simpson Oil. Better-known as RSO, it’s purported to help the body heal and can be consumed in oral or vapor form. While it’s not legal for Pennsylvania dispensaries to sell edibles, people can make them at home. People use RSO in the kitchen, creating their own recipes. “It’s a super-versatile medicine.” says Ferracone.
Hunter has seen “a ton of success” with lotions, topicals and transdermals. They allow for targeted relief, and their easy consumption makes them attractive to patients of all ages.
Concentrates are the go-to for those with PTSD. Shuda notes that they have a “pronounced and intense effect” on anxiety and stress. CBD oil, another popular option, targets specific cannabinoids, which Hunter describes as the compounds within the marijuana plant.
As more conditions get added to the medically approved list and interest grows in cannabis treatments, the industry seems to be on a never-ending uphill climb. “The sky’s the limit for us,” says Ferracone.
Despite the growth in the program, the process to join is the same as always. You must have a qualifying condition, be approved by a certified physician, and pay a fee. Cannabis insiders want to make the process more egalitarian. “I think there’s a responsibility on the dispensaries to make the program accessible,” Hunter says.
To that end, Keystone Shops has initiated a caregiver program to help bridge the gap for patients who can’t come to a dispensary on their own.
Shuda wants to see dispensaries focus on “underprivileged populations,” particularly through caregiver services. He has also voiced concern over the price of marijuana products. Soulful Cannabis, a website run by Shuda’s nonprofit, documents discounts at dispensaries across the state. “It’s an expensive proposition to be using cannabis in a medical fashion on a daily basis, and there’s no support from insurance,” he says.
Just across the river, New Jersey recently legalized recreational marijuana. Could the same thing happen here? Shuda thinks so, and Hunter notes that such a bill would have broad support. “I think it’s very likely to happen,” she says.
Related Article: Why are so Many Baby Boomers Turning to Medical Marijuana?