Medical marijuana faces hurdles

Prospective local growers delaying or canceling plans to grow drug plants

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski / Allen Wagner of Wagner’s Greenhouse waters hydrangea plants at the business. Wagner said a last-minute problem prevented him from applying to be a medical marijuana grower, but he will likely seek a spot in an as-yet-unscheduled second round of license offers.

With one day left for prospective medical marijuana growers and distributors to turn their paperwork in to state authorities, interest is already stirring in some quarters to legalize the drug outright.

But many forces — including those of the federal government — are dead set against any moves to expand marijuana’s availability. And if prospective local growers are any indication, even medical marijuana could hit some speed bumps in the coming months.

“There is some pushback around the state,” said Allen Wagner, owner of Wagner’s Greenhouse in Logan Township and a prospective medical marijuana grower. “And there are some places where their arms are open, where they’re going to hug anybody that’s going to do this.”

Legal medical marijuana in Pennsylvania was the product of a yearslong political battle, with families of gravely ill children rallying in Harrisburg to convince lawmakers the drug is effective for pain, seizures and other symptoms.

However, the law limits the forms that medical marijuana can take and doesn’t include smoking it.

Passing a new law didn’t make the drug available overnight, however.

Growers and dispensers have had to follow an intensive application process for a shot to grow or sell the plant, with a monthlong license period set to end Monday.

In December, state Secretary of Health Karen Murphy said officials had gathered preliminary information from as many as 900 potential growers and dispensers, suggesting a surge of interest in a profitable new field.

“It’s a good cash crop,” Wagner said in June, when he publicly revealed his intention to seek a license.

Bureaucratic tie-ups and legal wrangling have pushed some potential license-seekers to delay or cancel their plans, however.

In Altoona, two possible applicants — Wagner and a prominent business figure who refused to be named publicly — said they would delay or cancel their plans.

Wagner said a last-minute problem prevented him from applying locally; he said Wednesday that he will likely seek a spot in an as-yet-unscheduled second round of license offers. The second business owner said his family had considered opening a large-scale grow operation but canceled at the last minute as they reached a bureaucratic thicket.

“It just really got really complicated … the application itself,” he said.

The 40-page application requires prospective sellers and growers to prove their site is properly zoned and approved by local authorities, an additional step for those like Wagner whose businesses are in built-up municipalities. It also requires owners to list their employees’ personal information for safety purposes.

“Part of the process to apply is you have to get a letter from your municipality sort of blessing your operation. First you’ve got to get a letter that it meets the zoning,” Wagner said. “Then they recommend you get a letter of recommendation from the township: ‘Yeah, this is a good idea. We’ll support this person, this company.'”

Applicants must write essays

The most detailed part of the process, however, is the series of essay answers — up to 5,000 words each — covering plans for security, transportation and nondiscrimination in hiring.

“The whole goal of this is to make sure that it’s a level playing field for anyone who’s applying,” Department of Health spokeswoman April Hutcheson said. “And it is an open and transparent process.”

State officials will go through the applications, assigning scores based on answers before announcing the license recipients, she said. It could take about 90 days for officials to complete the process, she said.

Hutcheson said the department will release applicants’ names, including those who didn’t make the cut.

It wasn’t clear last week whether anyone in the Altoona area was still set to apply for a license in the first round.

For both the state and individual business owners, it’s a complex process to establish a working marijuana system. A public question-and-answer presentation included more than 700 questions from prospective growers and sellers: Can their security guards carry guns? Can electronic tags be used to track plants? When will the state police collect employees’ fingerprints?

As an entirely new kind of business, marijuana remains poorly understood in some quarters. Only a handful of fellow greenhouse operators have applied for permits to grow the plant, which would then be refined into medicinal form, Wagner said.

“I know why they don’t think of greenhouses growing marijuana: It’s been illegal for 70 years, and they only know how to grow it inside,” he said.

For decades, a typical (and illegal) grow operation would be limited to a small, hidden room or garage with heat lamps, but legalization is set to allow for much more advanced methods.

If he applies later and receives a license, Wagner said, he could harvest an estimated 200 pounds per week. But for many seeking large-scale harvesting of a wholly new crop, outside expertise might be a necessity. Those interested in growing the drug have described the need for outside consultants and advisers — some from Colorado, which has spearheaded marijuana liberalization — whose services can come at a steep cost.

Despite the expense and the bureaucratic hassle, there’s little doubt marijuana could be a highly profitable business in Pennsylvania. That has already spurred talk of more widespread legalization, including of recreational use as several populous states have already done.

Legalization pushed

In a March 6 announcement, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale proposed legalizing and taxing marijuana to help plug a contentious budget gap. Colorado, a state with less than half Pennsylvania’s population, took in $129 million in tax revenue from the drug, which is sold to adults at licensed businesses, he noted.

“The train has indeed left the station on the regulation and taxation of marijuana,” DePasquale said. “It is time for this commonwealth to seriously consider this opportunity to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue.”

The proposal isn’t likely to generate widespread support soon in the General Assembly, which fought for years over the drug’s medicinal form. Gov. Tom Wolf, a fellow Democrat, has since questioned the impact legalization would have on the budget gap, as well.

But DePasquale’s proposal demonstrates changing attitudes toward marijuana, including in cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and State College. Those cities have decriminalized the drug for recreational use, meaning those caught with a small amount typically receive a fine rather than a criminal charge.

The change has slashed arrest numbers and saved millions of dollars in Philadelphia. But President Donald Trump’s administration has shown little tolerance for local- and state-level legalization: Attorney General Jeff Sessions described the drug last week as only “slightly less awful” than heroin, and White House press secretary Sean Spicer has predicted harsher federal enforcement in states where it is legal.

Still, as Pennsylvania’s medical program goes through its growing pains, it appears to be safe from federal interference. News outlets noted last week that the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a federal research outfit, has subtly retitled a section of its website from “Is marijuana medicine?” to the more definitive “Marijuana as medicine.”

More and more of those involved, including potential growers and sellers, see it as both a moneymaking opportunity and a public good.

“There hasn’t seemed to be any secretiveness about it,” Wagner said. “A lot of people are looking.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.

Marijuana deadline

The state’s system for making and selling medical marijuana is getting underway. Here are the next steps:

Monday marks the application deadline for hopeful growers and sellers.

State officials will then rate the applications on a point system, a process that could take months.

Those with the highest ranks in each geographical area will get licenses to make or distribute medicinal marijuana.

The region covering Blair, Huntingdon and Bedford counties and extending to York and Harrisburg is set to receive four dispensary permits and two grower-processor permits.