Patients will soon be able to get medical marijuana in South Philly. Credit: Andy Colwell for Billy Penn

Inside state Sen. Sharif Street’s office in North Central, the walls are covered in posters advertising assistance programs and brochures scattered about the space offer every kind of constituent service.

A flier on the front desk now promotes a new one: “APPLY FOR A MEDICAL MARIJUANA CARD.”

Since the second week of August, representatives from PhillyNORML have been stationed at the state senator’s Jefferson Street district office on Thursdays to answer questions about Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program. Staffers from a soon-to-open cannabis clinic joined for the first time last week to help get patients certified.

Street is apparently the only member of the General Assembly offering such a service, which was the brainchild of policy director Micah Mahjoubian.

Mahjoubian usually doesn’t deal with constituent services, but when he learned advocates were setting up at street fairs to educate people about medical marijuana he wondered: Why aren’t we doing the same?

With some help from Tony Lepore, the Senate Democratic Caucus chief of staff, Mahjoubian said they worked out a way to help constituents not only sign up, but also see a doctor to get certified. Other senators are now considering offering similar assistance, Lepore said.

A PhillyNORML sign inside one of Sen. Sharif Street’s district offices

Pay your own way

Pennsylvanians with a qualifying medical condition first have to register online, then get certified by one of the more than 700 physicians signed up with the state. After obtaining certification, patients apply for a medical marijuana ID card.

Physicians can charge what they want to certify patients, ID cards cost $50, and dispensaries set their own prices. To help with the expense, the state Department of Health is required by law to establish a fund to offer financial assistance to patients who need it.

But before that can happen, the state has to use fees and taxes collected from medical marijuana to pay back the cost of establishing the program: $3 million initially, according to a DOH spokesperson. There’s no timeline to do so.

So for now, patients are left to fund their own care.

Street told Billy Penn that people who live in districts like his “suffer the dual penalty of being both poor and uninformed.”

“There are a number of people who are self-medicating and have been doing so for years,” Street said.

“They really do…meet the medical criteria to use cannabis, but have been doing so illegally because of lack of information and lack of access,” he clarified. “We don’t want people to suffer criminal sanctions for activity which they could legally engage in.”

Spreading the good word

Nurse practitioner Desiree Ivey and PhillyNORML Executive Director Robert Rudnitski were on hand last Thursday to provide basic education on the plant and how to properly consume it. Both expressed concern that patients are not getting adequate information at some dispensaries about how much medicine to take and the best way to consume it.

“They have to know how to heat it correctly and all those things,” Ivey said. “That’s definitely imperative so that they don’t overmedicate [and] so that they get the proper effects to their condition or ailment.”

Ivey will soon open her Medicinally Jointed clinic inside South Philly’s Constitution Health Plaza, where patients and caregivers will be able to get certified and consult with staff doctors. There will also be cannabidiol products for sale, a massage therapist and an aesthetician (yes, CBD skincare is a thing), part of the mission to be a “total health and wellness clinic.”

Medicinally Jointed plans to offer certifications on a sliding scale, one of the few clinics to do so, according to Rudnitski.

That’s in spite of the fact that if Ivey does her job well and properly educates patients, she may not see repeat business like a dispensary does.

Still, Ivey wants to bring even more underrepresented people into the industry — “especially minority women,” she said. She serves as Philadelphia market leader for Women Grow, a networking organization for female cannabis professionals, and is also hosting a conference targeted at people of color this October.

Help with ‘tough’ qualifications

During week one, Rudnitski said he was primarily asked general questions about the program like, do I qualify?

He described Pennsylvania’s list of qualifying conditions as “some of the toughest out there,” although something like chronic pain is more open to physician interpretation.

“I think that the state wants everybody to have their medical card. They just don’t want havoc,” Rudnitski said. “So it’s our job to, you know, do the best we can to get people through the system that can actually qualify.”

Mahjoubian plans to use the advocates’ expertise to put together a booklet with specifics on medical marijuana that can be distributed to Street’s constituents.

“I didn’t even know all the questions that are unanswered until recently,” he said.

Sarah Anne Hughes is based in Harrisburg for The Incline and Billy Penn as the sites’ first-ever state capitol reporter and is a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a new initiative that seeks...