A marijuana growing operation in Colorado.

Updated Sunday, April 17

You probably have an image of legalized marijuana, whether it’s for medicinal purposes or not, in your head. It’s dispensaries that look something like a tattoo parlor with a dreadlocked staffer selling weed in a corner shop to shady customers with quite-possibly-fake medical ID cards.

Sorry to burst your bubble. But now that medical marijuana is legal in Pennsylvania as of April 17 — save for one more signature — that’s not exactly what it’s going to be like.

More than 100,000 people statewide (some say it’s closer to 200,000) are expected to eligible to obtain medical marijuana. But don’t expect it to happen overnight — though the bill goes into effect 30 days after Gov. Tom Wolf signs it, it’ll be a year and a half before the statewide medical marijuana program is up and running.

There’s a lot to do between now and then. Doctors will have to be trained and licensed to prescribe medical marijuana. Growers and processors will have to apply to be licensed and then set up their shops. Dispensaries will have to be built and staffed. And a state advisory board still has regulations it has to work out.

What to expect on medical marijuana

1. Only patients with 17 specific medical conditions will qualify.

Doctors may only recommend medical marijuana to patients with the following conditions:

  • Cancer
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Epilepsy
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Neuropathies
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Intractable seizures
  • Glaucoma
  • Autism
  • Sickle cell anemia
  • Damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity
  • Severe chronic or intractable pain of neuropathic origin

2. Only licensed doctors can prescribe marijuana.

In order to recommend the use of medical marijuana to a patient, a doctor has to be registered with the state. To be licensed, they’ll have to complete a four-hour training course because for most physicians, this isn’t something they learned in medical school.

3. There will be no more than 150 dispensaries.

The state will license up to 50 dispensaries that can each have up to three physical locations to dispense medical marijuana. The bill doesn’t include language related to how those dispensaries will be chosen, but a Department of Health advisory board on medical marijuana will come up with the application and selection structure within the next six months.

4. 50 growers and processors will be selected to grow cannabis.

Similar to the dispensaries, 50 growers and processors statewide will be selected in order to grow cannabis. But don’t expect huge fields of pot pants being grown in rural Lancaster. Growers are required by law to operate an indoor facility (that won’t look like any different from a normal warehouse) that includes electronic locking systems, electronic surveillance and other features required by the Department.

Yes, all the marijuana dispensed in Pennsylvania will be grown right here in the Keystone State.

5. There are taxes… and fees!

Dispensaries will pay $5,000 and growers will pay $10,000 just to apply. If selected, dispensary locations will pay a $30,000 registration fee and growers/ processors will pay a $200,000 registration fee and an annual $10,000 renewal fee. That sounds steep — but it’s actually quite similar to what a top-tier liquor license might cost.

Growers and processors will pay a 5 percent tax and the bill stipulates that cost can’t be passed onto patients. There’s also a $50 charge for patients seeking an ID card, but that fee can be waived by the Department in the case of financial hardship.

The funds raised through the taxes and fees will go toward the Department of Health’s regulation efforts, medical treatment research and drug abuse prevention programming.

What not to expect

1. Kids and sick people won’t be ripping bongs.

The forms of marijuana allowed to be dispensed are in the form of pills, oils, gels, creams, ointments, tinctures, liquid and non-whole plant forms for administration through vaporization. That means no edibles may be sold (though patients can put the medicine in food if they choose to) and no marijuana will be sold in its leaf form. Smoking marijuana is still illegal for everyone.

2. Dispensaries won’t be anywhere close to kids.

No dispensaries are allowed to be constructed or opened up within 1,000 feet (that’s more than a city block) of a school or a day-care facility.

3. Dispensary staff members won’t be random stoners.

The bill requires that dispensaries have a physician or pharmacist on site at all times while the dispensary is open, though doctors and pharmacists can’t actually prescribe the medical cannabis there — that has to be done at a doctor’s office or hospital facility.

4. Patients won’t be arrested for using medical marijuana for the next 18 months.

After the 30-day window once Wolf signs the bill, parents who give medical cannabis obtained from other states to sick children with approved conditions are protected. The “safe haven” provision in the bill extends to all adults with approved conditions six months after Wolf signs the bill.

5. The types of marijuana covered in the bill probably won’t stay the same forever.

An advisory board within the Department of Health will issue a report after the first two years of the medical marijuana program and in that will be recommendations as to whether or not the state should move forward with allowing access to plant or leaf forms of marijuana. From there, the Department can accept or reject the recommendations and will have 18 months to come up with new regulations if need-be.

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.