Why medical marijuana shops in Pa. won't reek

Walk into a medical marijuana dispensary in New Jersey and the first thing to hit you is the stink.

Weed’s scent is a sour blast that seems to reek of citrus, diesel, and skunk. At the Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge, Middlesex County, charcoal air purifiers — encased in gleaming steel and larger than jet engines — are strategically placed through the facility. It’s hard to say whether their presence tempers the odor, which is generated by thousands of cannabis plants growing under lights in the same building.

In Pennsylvania, patients visiting a dispensary won’t smell a thing. Cannabis storefronts in the Keystone State will be as antiseptically scented as a doctor’s office. That’s because smokable plant products — dried weed — won’t be for sale and no marijuana will be grown on the premises.  Dispensaries will sell only sealed oils, tinctures, pills, lotions and vapor cartridges.

In New Jersey, dispensaries must grow their own marijuana in adjoining warehouses. That makes the few Garden State cannabis complexes more aromatic and hard to miss.

Garden State Dispensary on U.S. 1 in Woodbridge, N.J. Inside, patients can pick from a dozen strains of medical marijuana grown in an adjoining warehouse. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer

In Pennsylvania, dispensaries will operate in smaller, nondescript buildings. Each business can buy its medication from any of 12 state-permitted grower-processors.  If the program isn’t derailed by lawsuits, sales will begin after Jan. 1, 2018.

It will be difficult for passersby to tell what is sold at a Pennsylvania storefront. Signs will indicate there’s some sort of health care being provided inside, but there won’t be a bright neon green marijuana leaf advertising its presence. The number of surveillance cameras on the entrances may be the only evidence there’s something valuable for sale.

“If you know what to look for, you’ll know there’s a dispensary there,” said Patrick Nightingale, a former Allegheny County prosecutor who is now in private practice and who heads the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society. “But if you don’t, you’re unlikely to notice it.”

Pennsylvania last week granted permits to 27 businesses to open dispensaries throughout the commonwealth. The state Department of Health on Thursday announced the names of the winners and the locations of 52 proposed storefronts.

Fifteen dispensaries are slated for Philadelphia and its suburbs. Six are to open in Montgomery County, three in Bucks County, and two each in Chester and Delaware Counties. Four will open within the city, including one in East Mount Airy, two in Northeast Philadelphia, and another in Fishtown near the SugarHouse Casino.

 

Marcus Roundtree, a cultivation technician, at work staking cannabis plants in one of Garden State Dispensary’s grow rooms.

“The state is doing a great job, keeping up the pace and meeting deadlines,” said Becky Dansky, an attorney with the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit working to end cannabis prohibition. “It’s also doing a good job insulating itself from the appearance of impropriety.”

The differences between the two state programs will extend far past the schnoz. For starters, the Pennsylvania law is designed to get medicine to patients with greater speed than New Jersey’s rollout.

The New Jersey cannabis bill was passed in 2010. Yet the Garden State still has only six operating dispensaries and has signed up only 11,600 patients.

Aaron J. Epstein, general manager of the Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge, N.J., stands in the room where hundreds of marijuana plants are dried before being trimmed. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer

The New Jersey program has been criticized for having “insanely high” prices, Dansky said, with cost per ounce ranging from $425 to $520, according to a state analysis. Asked about the cost of cannabis at Garden State Dispensary, general manager Aaron J. Epstein said he would tell only patients how much it would cost.

Prices in Pennsylvania will likely be as steep. And possibly higher. That’s because the process of turning medical marijuana into oils and vape pen cartridges will add costs to production. The cost of a single vape cartridge can reach $90 in some states; some patients may need one a day. The state, however, is committed to keeping the products affordable and can put a price cap on medical marijuana products for up to six months if they get too expensive, said health department spokeswoman April Hutcheson. The state also will create a fund to subsidize patients facing financial hardship.

William Howard trims the dried marijuana buds at Garden State Dispensary. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer

Among other differences:

  • Pennsylvania’s law covers more ailments than New Jersey’s, potentially increasing the number of patients who can participate.  Pennsylvania’s qualifying conditions include autism, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, sickle cell anemia, Huntington’s disease, and neuropathic pain. Both states include cancer, HIV/AIDS, ALS, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, intractable spasticity, and terminal illness.
  • Pennsylvania’s program will mandate regular, independent cannabis testing to ensure purity and potency.
  • Because Pennsylvania dispensaries can buy from any of the 12 in-state marijuana growers, more varieties or strains should be available for patients to purchase.