Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program faces persistent pot shortages

Pennsylvania doesn’t have enough marijuana to go around.

Product shortages have plagued medical marijuana dispensaries across the state for months. Dry leaf marijuana has been especially hard to come by.

“It’s so sad: I’ll put out two strains in the morning and by 12 o’clock or 1 p.m., they’re gone,” said Rocco Levine, director of operations for Solevo Wellness, which owns dispensaries in Squirrel Hill and Cranberry.

It’s not as bad as the first few months of the medical marijuana program in early 2018, when dispensaries sometimes ran out of product entirely. There’s always some form of medical marijuana to sell. But availability of particular brands is spotty, and sometimes there’s no dry leaf marijuana available at all.

“It has been just a wild and crazy time with this dry leaf,” Levine said. “One week, I have plenty of product. Other weeks, I have almost nothing. … I wish it would grow in a day, and I would give it to you in a heartbeat.”

The state’s 76 dispensaries must buy marijuana from state-licensed grower-processor facilities.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health has issued 25 grower-processor permits, but only 20 are operational — and only 14 have shipped product, according to department spokesman Nate Wardle.

When the state added dry leaf marijuana to the list of allowed medical cannabis products in 2018, dispensary owners touted the move as the solution to the short supply and high prices that marked the early months of Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program.

Also known as marijuana flower, dry leaf marijuana requires less processing than other products, which means growers can make more of it more quickly. However, it takes about three months to grow a marijuana crop, which has not been fast enough to satisfy Pennsylvania’s patients.

Almost 160,000 Pennsylvanians are certified to get medical marijuana, according to the Department of Health.

In July, the state added anxiety disorders to the list of conditions that can qualify people to obtain medical marijuana, which gave many more Pennsylvanians a path to legal weed.

“The medical program in Pennsylvania took off at such a rapid pace, I think it was faster than people were expecting,” said Jason Erkes, spokesman for Cresco Yeltrah, which has marijuana operations in 11 states.

Cresco Yeltrah has a grower-processor facility in Jefferson County that sells product to every state dispensary, and it operates several dispensaries of its own.

It recently completed a major expansion at its growing facility and immediately started another. By spring, the 17,000-square-foot building will have grown to 85,000 square feet.

Calypso Enterprises in Erie is one of the state’s newest grower-processors. It shipped its first product last month.

Calypso makes several marijuana products at its 51,000-square-foot facility, including concentrates and vape cartridges. Its primary focus, however, is dry leaf.

“As we know in Pennsylvania, flower is power,” said Laura Guncheon, vice president of product management for Erie Management Group, Calypso’s parent company.

In its first month, Calypso has made consistency its priority, Guncheon said. It has sold product to 14 dispensaries so far, all in Western Pennsylvania, including Allegheny and Westmoreland counties.

The company wants to make sure it has plenty of product for every dispensary it serves, rather than spreading itself thin across the state, Guncheon said.

“The No. 1 patient complaint since the inception of the program has been availability of product and consistency of product,” she said. “We would love to be in every single dispensary around the commonwealth out of the gate, but that’s not realistic.”

Officials in the industry and the Department of Health say the shortages will resolve in time. Existing growers are constantly adding capacity and learning from their early growing pains.

“Our units per day is going up every day,” Guncheon said. “I think we need more time. I think the capacity is there.”

New growers are expected to open soon, Wardle said.

There’s already plenty of medical marijuana product to go around. Only specific forms and strains are in short supply, Wardle said.

“There are no widespread shortages of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania. However, we know that there are patients looking for specific products and strains, and those may not be available at all locations,” he said.

It’s unlikely the state will license any new growers anytime soon. State law only allows 25 licensees. Any more would require action from the Legislature, Wardle said.

Erkes predicts the shortfall will be mostly over by summer.

“By this summer, our facility will be producing four times the volume that it was six months ago,” he said.

Levine can’t wait.

“We can only hope that in a few months’ time, we won’t be in this predicament,” he said.

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jacob at 724-836-6646, [email protected] or via Twitter .

Published at Fri, 17 Jan 2020 22:36:45 +0000

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