Colorado Harvest Company CEO Tim Cullen holds a handful of cannabis buds from the company's Golden Goat strain in the drying room of the company's 10,000-square-foot south Denver facility. Credit: Andy Colwell for Billy Penn

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When the Pennsylvania legislature last year passed a bill legalizing medical marijuana, it did so largely under the impression that dispensaries wouldn’t sell the drug in its plant form, but only in infused oils, pills and ointments.

By next year though, when dispensaries begin opening across the state, that may not be the case. A little-known loophole in the law could allow for dispensaries to distribute plant-form marijuana meant for vaporization.

State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, one of the prime sponsors of the medical marijuana legalization bill, made minor waves during a panel at a cannabis expo in Pittsburgh this week when he said that by the time “dispensaries open, it is likely that they will have whole plant on their shelves from day one.”

Leach’s spokesman Steve Hoenstine elaborated, saying the bill does provide for a change to the permitted forms of medical marijuana based on recommendations by an advisory board set up to provide recommendations to the state Department of Health, which is overseeing medical marijuana programming in Pennsylvania.

“That may include the addition of whole plant for vaporization purposes,” Hoenstine said. “That will depend upon the recommendations of the advisory board and the discretion of the secretary.”

That’s a lot different than the public conversations that were going on when the bill was being considered. The state Department of Health even indicates on its website that medical marijuana “is limited by statute in Pennsylvania to the following forms: pill; oil; topical forms, including gel, creams or ointments; a form medically appropriate for administration by vaporization or nebulization, excluding dry leaf or plant form; tincture; and liquid.” (Emphasis ours.)

This was a sticking point, particularly with medical marijuana proponents. Activists lamented the exclusion of dry leaf or plant form marijuana, saying relief can take much longer when medicine is consumed via a pill or oil as opposed to smoking or vaporization.

But a close look at the law as passed shows language that would allow for the sale of plant form marijuana, even without legislative approval.

The state’s medical marijuana advisory board — made up largely of officials like the police commissioner and the physician general — is charged under the law with a number of duties, including examining Pennsylvania’s law and comparing it with other states.

One of the board’s duties is to produce a report by April 2018 that makes recommendations on how best to move forward with implementing the state’s medical marijuana program and whether or not the state should make changes to the forms of marijuana allowed. Under the law itself, the board must make a recommendation on: “Whether to permit medical marijuana to be dispensed in dry leaf or plant form, for administration by vaporization.”

Leach seemed convinced that the board will recommend the state do so, saying at the expo earlier this week: “[T]hey will, because we’re appointing people to do that.”

If the advisory board does recommend the state permit dispensation of medical marijuana in dry leaf or plant form, then it’s up to the state secretary of the Department of Health to make the final call, and according to the law, he or she has a year to do so.

From the legislation:

After receiving the report of the advisory board under section 1201(j)(4), at the discretion of the secretary, the department may promulgate regulations to effectuate recommendations made by the advisory board. The secretary shall issue notice in the Pennsylvania Bulletin within 12 months of the receipt of the report of the advisory board. The notice shall include the recommendations of the advisory board and shall state the specific reasons for the decision of the secretary on whether or not to effectuate each recommendation.

Assuming the state’s operating under an administration that’s sympathetic to medical marijuana — as it currently is under Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf — it’s likely the secretary of the Department of Health would support such a move, therefore putting plant-form medical cannabis on the proverbial shelves in Pennsylvania.

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