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Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Program Blossoms

By Aaron G. Biros
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Pennsylvania’s medical cannabis program may be young, but the industry in that state is off to a burgeoning start. Back in 2016, the state legalized medical cannabis. In 2017, the PA Department of Health began accepting applications for licenses and announced the first 12 winning applications. On February 15th, 2018, medical cannabis became available for more than 17,000 patients that registered in the program.

In March of this year, Governor Tom Wolf announced two more dispensaries were approved to operate as well as another grower/processor licensee. At that time, the press release indicated more than 21,000 patients have registered to participate in the medical cannabis program.

Then in April, Governor Wolf announced Phase Two of their medical cannabis program, allowing the industry to grow even more. That allowed for 13 new grower/processor permits and 23 new primary dispensary permits, according to a press release, which moved the total up to 25 grower/processors licensees and 50 dispensary licensees.

Just weeks later after that announcement, the PA Department of Health adjusted their program to allow patients access to whole plant, dried flower and opened up more qualifying conditions. The qualifying conditions added to the list now include cancer remission therapy as well as opioid-addiction therapy, which are two very notable additions. According to an April 6threport, 28,508 patients and 2495 caregivers registered with the program.

On May 15th, Governor Wolf approved eight universities to participate in a groundbreaking program, allowing Pennsylvania to take the first steps towards clinical research for medical cannabis. This research program would be the first of its kind in the country, allowing research institutions to explore the drug. The excitement was put on hold, however, when a Pennsylvania judge halted the program with an injunction. A handful of growers and dispensary owners in PA filed suit to stop the program on grounds that it violated the original intent of the law. State Representative Kathy Watson from Bucks County, the author of the research program, called the suit “pathetic because it’s all about the money.” We’ll follow closely with any new developments as they come.

Steve Schain, Esq. practicing at the Hoban law Group

Steven Schain, Esq., senior attorney at Hoban Law Group, a global cannabis law firm, represents multiple cannabis-related businesses in Pennsylvania. He says the program’s roll out has been fast with solid growth. “Within two years of the legislation’s enactment, Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program has exceeded expectations with controlled, sustainable and quality growth,” says Schain. “The Pennsylvania Department of Health established ambitious goals, which they met timely and created a statewide program servicing over 10,000 patients in record time. Looming ahead is New Jersey’s adult use program, the anticipated robustness of which could undermine vigorous sales in southeastern Pennsylvania’s marijuana-related businesses.”

On May 30th, Philadelphia welcomed their first medical cannabis dispensary, with a location opening up their doors to patients in Fishtown. Now reports are coming in that say more than 37,000 patients have registered to date, with over 16,000 who have received their ID cards and medical cannabis at a dispensary.

Even though the research program might be on hold for now, Pennsylvania’s medical cannabis program is growing at a fast pace. The market there has blossomed in just a few short months to a whopping 37,000-registered patients, according to a press release form Governor Wolf’s office. Some say an additional 200,000 patients could qualify. With the second phase in sight, it seems Pennsylvania is on track to become a hotbed for business and research, developing into a massive medical cannabis marketplace soon. Stay tuned for more updates.

Is New Jersey The Next State To Legalize Adult Use Cannabis?

By Aaron G. Biros
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Back in November, New Jersey elected Democrat Phil Murphy for governor, who ran on a campaign of legalizing adult use cannabis and using tax revenue from that for important government programs like education and pensions. According to CNN Money, NJ State Senate President Stephen Sweeney says he wants to vote on draft legislation and have it approved within 100 days of Gov. Murphy’s inauguration.

New Jersey’s Governor-elect Phil Murphy Photo: Phil Murphy, Flickr

That bill, sponsored by Sen. Nicholas Scutari back in May (the same Senator that sponsored the state’s now-implemented medical cannabis law), would legalize cannabis use, growing and sales, for those over the age of 21, while tacking on a hefty tax. The legislation, if it passes the vote and signed into law this spring, would also create a licensing framework and a “Division of Marijuana Enforcement,” the government body that would be tasked with regulating the industry.

Election victories throughout the state for Democrats means they now control the executive and legislative branches of the state’s government, opening the door for possibly legalizing cannabis within a year. This is a massive about-face for the state, previously controlled by Republican and Trump-supporter Chris Christie, a less-than-cannabis-friendly Governor who once called tax revenue from cannabis “blood money.”

Senator Nicholas P. Scutari (D)

But the newly revived fervor over legalizing cannabis in New Jersey comes with its own hang-ups. For one, Governor Phil Murphy claimed this could bring up to $300 million in tax revenue, which is a bit of a pipedream in the short term. The state would need total cannabis sales to hit $1.2 billion to reach that amount of tax revenue, something New Frontier Data doesn’t expect would happen until maybe 2025.

Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey, wrote an op-ed addressing Murphy’s campaign promises. Sinha says that Gov.-elect Murphy ran on legalizing cannabis “as a social and racial justice priority.” He argues that in order for New Jersey to legalize cannabis equitably, the legislation needs to have automatic expungement of previous cannabis-related criminal convictions, a provision for growing at home, fair regulations and community reinvestment of the tax revenue. On the surface, Sen. Nicholas Scutari’s bill introduced back in May of 2017 seems to have provisions in place to meet all of these requirements.

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Bridging the Gap: Doctors, Education and Compliance

By Aaron G. Biros
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Doctors are still very hesitant to recommend cannabis in medical treatment of their patients. A key aspect missing from the medical cannabis industry is participation from physicians and the medical community. Cannabis’ Schedule I drug status blocks medical research and leaves a stigma in the medical community. Doctors are concerned with the implications of recommending cannabis, the possibility of losing their license to practice and most lack any formal education in prescribing cannabis. The DEA’s recent announcement to consider rescheduling cannabis this year could dramatically impact doctor’s willingness to work with the drug.

The DEA’s plan to release a decision on the matter represents a major shift in attitude toward treating patients with medical cannabis. This could very possibly culminate in the rescheduling of cannabis, which would allow for more medical research, including clinical trials. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, board-certified anesthesiologist and pain management specialist from Pearl River, New York, believes the bigger obstacles for doctors prescribing cannabis include the stigma associated with it, legal concerns and physicians’ lack of education. Dr. Gottlieb has practices in both New York and New Jersey where he recommends patients cannabis. He believes there should be some type of recourse to help physicians circumvent legal issues. “Some of the bigger legal concerns regarding cannabis surround complying with state regulations,” says Gottlieb. “That sort of compliance includes confirming the diagnosis of the patient with thorough documentation, making sure it is an approved condition to treat with cannabis, documenting continued treatment of the illness and clearing the patient of any contraindications.”

Dr. Gottlieb believes it should be a collaborative effort on behalf of states, dispensaries and patients working to help educate doctors on the legal concerns surrounding the recommendation of cannabis. “Physicians are not taught anything in medical school about dosing or the medical effects of cannabis,” says Gottlieb. “With more education we can get rid of the stigma and get physicians aware of the potential benefits for their patients and the ability to control dosage in medication.”

Currently, there is very little communication between doctors and dispensaries in New York. A collaborative effort to educate all stakeholders involved could help get more doctors involved and streamline the entire process. “Doctors want patients to feel comfortable and know what to expect in receiving treatment with cannabis,” continues Gottlieb. “Which will come with a more transparent system, involving patients, doctors and dispensaries in a conversation about education.”

Pointing to the success of doctors actively recommending cannabis could also facilitate doctor participation. “The number one reason why I recommend cannabis is that I have a number of patients that use it to successfully treat their conditions and completely eliminate their opioid regiment,” says Gottlieb. That kind of success in a treatment should grab the attention of physicians as what could possibly be best for their patients. With more education and research, doctors will gradually feel more comfortable recommending cannabis to their patients.