General Questions About Medical Cannabis and Pennsylvania’s Program

The law defines the term “medical cannabis” as “cannabis obtained for a certified medical use by a Pennsylvania resident with a serious medical condition.” In Pennsylvania, it is limited to the following forms:

  • Pill
  • Oil
  • Topicals (gels, creams or ointments)
  • Vaporization or nebulization, excluding dry leaf or plant form (deemed medically appropriate for administration)
  • Tincture
  • Liquid

Smoking is not an approved use.

Medical cannabis is innovative. Although it has been around for over 10,000 years, we are just now studying and using it for its medical benefits. According to recent studies, cannabis can help patients suffering from certain serious medical conditions, alleviate pain, and improve a patient’s quality of life.

Currently, there are 17 conditions for which cannabis may be prescribed under Pennsylvania law:

  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, “Lou Gehrig’s disease”)
  • Autism
  • Cancer
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity
  • Epilepsy
  • Glaucoma
  • HIV / AIDS
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBS)
  • Intractable seizures
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Neuropathies
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Severe chronic or intractable pain of neuropathic origin or severe chronic or intractable pain in which conventional therapeutic intervention and opiate therapy is contraindicated or ineffective
  • Sickle cell anemia

The Department of Public Health can also approve additional debilitating medical conditions.

The new law creates a Medical Marijuana Advisory Board within the Department of Public Health. This board includes the:

  • Secretary of Health.
  • Physician General.
  • State Police Commissioner.
  • Chair of the State Board of Pharmacy.
  • Commissioner of Professional and Occupational Affairs.
  • President of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association
  • President of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.
  • Members appointed by the Governor.
  • Six appointees from the legislative caucuses who are knowledgeable and experienced in issues relating to the care and treatment of individuals with serious medical conditions, or geriatric, pediatric, or clinical research.

One member appointed by the Governor will be a patient, household member of a patient, or a patient advocate.

No. Medical cannabis is meant for medical use only and does not make cannabis use universally legal under the law.
There is a major difference between federal and state law. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has the authority to enforce federal laws relating to cannabis possession and use, regardless of state law.

Violation of the law includes growing, distributing, or possessing cannabis in any way, except through a federally-approved research program. No state or local law provides a legal defense to a violation of federal law.

However, there is a certain level of understanding between state and federal law enforcement. Because of current DOJ guidance, it may be unlikely that federal authorities would bring criminal charges against anyone acting in accord with Pennsylvania law.

There are temporary regulations that detail the program’s operation, including how applications are to be submitted by growers/processors, dispensaries, patients/caregivers, and physicians. They  will be in place for two years from the date they were published.

The public will be notified when the Department of Public Health is ready to issue formal regulations.

Governor Tom Wolf signed Senate Bill 3 into law on April 17, 2016, which began the process of implementing the state’s medical cannabis program. Implementation is expected to be complete by early 2018.

At that time, patients who are Pennsylvania residents and under a Pennsylvania-licensed physician’s care for the treatment of one of the 17 serious medical conditions may legally and safely obtain medical cannabis.

Applications for growers/processors and dispensaries are expected to become available during the first quarter of 2017.

Patient and Caregiver Concerns

Patients who are Pennsylvania residents and have a serious medical condition as certified by a Pennsylvania-licensed physician will be able to get medical cannabis at approved dispensaries in the state.

A caregiver will be able to buy from approved dispensaries, as well. The caregiver must be designated by the patient, approved by the Department of Public Health, and have a validly-issued permit from the department in order to deliver medical cannabis to the patient.

Pennsylvania law defines “caregiver” as “an individual, 21 years of age or older – unless otherwise authorized by the Department of Public Health – who is designated by a patient or, if the patient is under 18 years of age, an individual that is a parent or legal guardian of the patient, or an individual designated by a parent or legal guardian, or an appropriate individual approved by the department upon a sufficient showing that no parent or legal guardian is appropriate or available.”

A caregiver also must undergo a criminal history background check, submit an application to the department for an identification card, and be registered with the department.

Patients must:

  • Register with the Department of Public Health.
  • Get a physician’s certification that they suffer from one of 17 serious medical conditions treatable with medical cannabis.
  • Apply for a medical cannabis ID card and submit the application fee.
  • Buy medical cannabis from an approved dispensary that has a valid permit issued by the department.

Applications are not yet available. The Department of Public Health will make an announcement once they are.

Patient applications will be available on the department’s website.

Yes. Patients under the age of 18 with serious medical conditions may get medical cannabis through a legally recognized caregiver. See “Who is legally considered a ‘caregiver’?” above.

Yes. When a patient applies for an identification card, they may designate up to two caregivers. Caregivers must submit an application for their own ID card to the Department of Public Health and be registered with the department. See “Who is legally considered a ‘caregiver’?” above.

Applications will be available for caregivers on their website. There is a $50 processing fee for caregiver applications, but the department may waive or reduce the fee if the applicant demonstrates financial hardship.

Yes, a caregiver may be designated by up to five patients, but the caregiver must apply for and obtain a medical cannabis identification card and be registered for each patient.

Registered patients or caregivers with identification cards issued by the Department of Public Health may buy medical cannabis at approved dispensaries with valid permits.

There will be up to 50 dispensaries across the state. Each dispensary may manage up to three locations in the state.

The department will determine the placement of dispensaries based on factors such as the location and number of qualified patients in the surrounding area and their ability to access local public transportation. This is to ensure that medical cannabis is available for all patients with serious medical conditions.

Only a minor under 18 years of age with a serious medical condition may do so through a parent, legal guardian, or caregiver. The form of cannabis must be one made lawful by Pennsylvania’s Medical cannabis Program.

Obtaining medical cannabis from another state should be approached with caution. If a parent, legal guardian or caregiver chooses to go this route, they must follow all regulatory guidelines.

The Department of Health has no authority or ability to monitor the quality of medical cannabis lawfully available or obtained in another state. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued warning letters to firms that market unapproved new drugs or forms of cannabis that are not approved by the FDA for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of any disease.

Physician Concerns

A physician must:

  • Apply to the Department of Public Health to register with the program.
  • Show the department through training or expertise that they are qualified to treat serious medical conditions.
  • Successfully complete the required four-hour course established by the department.
  • Hold a valid, unexpired, unrevoked, unsuspended Pennsylvania license to practice medicine.

When will physician applications to participate in the Medical Marijuana Program be available?

Applications are not yet available. The Department of Public Health will make an announcement once they are.

Physician applications will be available on the department’s website.

A four-hour training course will be required for all physicians seeking to prescribe cannabis. The course will cover the latest scientific research on medical cannabis, including its risks and benefits,and other information deemed necessary by the Department of Public Health.

Yes. There will be an established list of physicians who are registered with the program, and it will be updated regularly.