Chris Goldstein is a marijuana reform advocate living in New Jersey.
Zoning Boards across Pennsylvania are passing a flurry of local regulations in an effort to roll out the green carpet for medical cannabis companies.
But these hometown exercises are less about getting warehouses water connections and more about public relations campaigns by businesses to win coveted permits.
During this phase we see how the focus on medical cannabis is really about profit and not necessarily the health of patients.
We've seen it before in New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Maryland. It isn't pretty.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health is taking applications for a handful of first-round permits being allowed for growing marijuana and dispensing a limited range of cannabis products. The application forms were released last month and will only be accepted during a four-week window that closes March 20.
Short deadlines, limited permits, a sexy product, and the promise to future riches have applicants falling out of the woodwork. A sudden groundswell of support has materialized despite high fees, steep liquid capital requirements and seemingly dauntless regulations.
We see investors and local officials walking hand-in-hand as businesses angle for permits from the Waynesboro Board of Education to a group of landowners in Wyoming County.
Polling shows 80 percent of Pa. voters support the use of medical marijuana. Support crosses political lines, ethnicity, class, gender and location.
Reporters and residents flock to local meetings where they find few hang-ups and a remarkable level of acceptance to the concept of an indoor marijuana farm.
On the other hand, patients are getting shuffled off to the side as all eyes remain fixed on dollar signs.
The law was passed last year to bring legal cannabis access to seriously ill patients. So far, not a single adult has been registered with the Pennsylvania Department of Health. In fact, no timeline has been proposed as to when exactly patients will receive legal protections or an ID card.
That means anyone with cancer, HIV, multiple-sclerosis, PTSD, or the other qualifying conditions are still getting their marijuana underground.
Recently, officials in the Delaware County community of Aston unanimously approved a potential medical cannabis site.
York County is also welcoming the medical cannabis business prospects.
In fact, marijuana possession arrests have risen steadily outside of decriminalized Philadelphia. More people seeking out cannabis for medical use could be contributing to the spike.
Patients are, undoubtedly, still getting put into handcuffs. Police do not tend to ask people if they have a qualifying medical condition on the way to the station for booking.
After being treated like criminals, these patients are now seen as lucrative customers.
Adults living with cancer and parents caring for children with epilepsy will be the sole source of profit and tax revenue under the medical cannabis law. Many live on a fixed income, a result of their medical conditions.
Because health insurance does not offset cannabis costs, patients themselves, in all states, pay all costs.
So those seeking to profit from medical marijuana, and the towns looking for the tax revenue, will be pulling from the stressed bank accounts of the seriously ill. They may be sorely disappointed.
Prospective applicants may not fully understand the heavily restrictive provisions within Pennsylvania’s cannabis law. One requirement alone could severely curtail the initial influx of patients in the program: A registry for participating nurses and doctors.
New Jersey uses a registration system for patients and medical personnel that’s very different from, say, Michigan.
Michigan doctors, for example, do not have to register to prescribe marijunana. However, a doctor in New Jersey is not allowed to recommend cannabis therapy unless he or she has registered.
That's why there are more than 100,000 registered patients in Michigan and only about 10,000 in New Jersey.
As for patients, they can't get even apply to the NJ program without paying an approved doctor. In Michigan, patients register themselves and can get approval from any doctor.
New Jersey publishes its cannabis physician list (where about 400 of 20,000 doctors opted in).
Pennsylvania will be attempting to use the same physician registry scheme as New Jersey.
The doctor registry is the biggest bottleneck to participation and has led to staggeringly low patient populations.
Then, because there are so few “customers” for the limited number of permit operators, the prices have become steep in New Jersey and are some of the most expensive in the nation.
Tax revenue hasn't materialized under these heavily regulated laws.
States that have adopted this capped-permit scheme and shunned the free-market approach have created a flawed selection process open to abuse. The losers and even the winners of medical cannabis permits in New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York have gone through some very public lawsuits.
Some towns in Massachusetts were found to be running a nice little side game, charging hundreds of thousands of dollars to potential medical cannabis operators. The cash was in exchange for letters of support needed for their applications.
More to the point, all this zoning seems premature. Language in the Pennsylvania law essentially says once permits for medical cannabis cultivation, dispensing and laboratory sites are issued that the towns can't prevent them from opening.
This was an intentional provision. Local zoning boards in other states often prohibited state-approved medical marijuana facilities by creating overly burdensome zoning. Other towns passed outright bans.
Pennsylvania's law already includes basic zoning rules, including a 1,000-foot setback from schools and daycare centers. Right now, most of the local cannabis zoning is being created for businesses that may only have an outside chance at holding a permit.
Still, potential applicants are aggressively seeking media attention to weight the cannabis permit selection process.
The names of the owners are redacted during selection, but the biography about the business itself remains in view. The calculated hope is that by getting their brand-names into the press the applicants can get in front of the eyes of DOH selection team.
Still, most local business folks may be out of their league when the competition comes down to the judging.
As I pointed out in a previous column, Pennsylvania's law is the first in the country that will allow publicly-traded companies and out-of-state owners to operate under cannabis permits.
Those operators have hungry eyes on lucrative new territory in the Keystone State as sales flatten in Colorado and other states.
With no option of home cultivation, and locked into a limited set of suppliers, Pennsylvania's patients are at the mercy of state regulators for fair prices and consistent access.
Charging top dollar for medical cannabis oils and maximizing the local tax revenue was never the spirit of Pennsylvania's compassionate use law.
Pennsylvania does not need cannabis providers looking to collect their fortune from the pockets of our seriously ill residents. We need people who will care for our patients.
If we, as a Commonwealth, really want the money from marijuana, it is long past time for full legalization.