Pennsylvania medical marijuana program on track, but legal issues loom

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Pennsylvania’s developing medical marijuana market appears to be progressing on schedule.

Industry watchers expect seeds to be in the ground ahead of the Dec. 20 deadline, six months after 12 grower/processor licenses and 27 dispensary permits were issued.

But a pair of legal issues could gum up the works:

While either issue could cause the department to be stretched thin and delay the program, neither has industry insiders particularly worried.

“This program should be available to the patients by early 2018,” said Christine Brann, a cannabis attorney in Hershey.

Michael Bronstein, a Philadelphia-based lobbyist, said the mechanisms for the appeals process undertaken by Keystone ReLeaf and the Reading Eagle’s request for application review were built in so as not to hinder the development or rollout of the program.

Judith Cassel, a Harrisburg-based attorney, said the health department has done a good job communicating with grower/processor and dispensary permit holders to ensure the businesses can meet their deadlines.

“They’re not just sitting in their offices waiting for the grower/processors to come to fruition by themselves,” she said.

Brann is encouraged that applications were submitted and permit winners announced only about 13 months after the act was passed in April 2016.

Bronstein agreed.

“Things have gone pretty well in Pennsylvania,” he said.

Ahead of schedule

Cassel’s optimistic the program could develop quicker than expected.

“We’re not only on schedule,” she said, “we may have grower/processors who are ready ahead of their due date.”

She added that some growers could have seeds in the ground in November, which would be about a month ahead of the Dec. 20 due date.

“That’s significant,” Cassel said. “Everyone thought that was a tight timeline to begin with, but obviously first-to-market is incentivized.”

One point of contention has been the six-month requirement for grower/processor and dispensary license holders to have their facilities constructed.

“This shouldn’t be a surprise,” Cassel said. “Every grower/processor applicant – before they ever applied – they knew they had six months from the date that they were awarded a permit.”

Her understanding is that the health department will grant extensions if a licensee’s facility isn’t ready at the six-month mark but has been making progress.

The next step is Phase 2, where the second half of the licenses are awarded.

Relief for ReLeaf?

Cassel, who represents business applicants for the medical marijuana program, said Keystone ReLeaf’s lawsuit could lead the health department to rescind all the permits it has issued. And that, she added, “would be a mad mess.”

But the company is fighting a losing battle, Cassel said, because it filed its application two days late.

“That’s a nonstarter,” she said. “It’s kind of like a spoiled child stomping their feet and saying, ‘If you don’t give me a permit, then no one should have a permit.'”

Brann expects the Commonwealth Court to rule on Keystone ReLeaf’s suit on the hearing for injunctive relief by the end of October.

State Sen. Daylin Leach – the main advocate for the 2016 law legalizing medical cannabis – said “people will be forced to needlessly endure excruciating pain, agony and, in some cases, death,” if Keystone ReLeaf’s lawsuit succeeds in delaying the program, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Redactions reviewed

The main concern over the open records request about the redactions in the MMJ applications is the effect on the health department’s resources.

Asked how long it would take to review the 450-plus grower/processor and dispensary applications to ensure all the information required to be made public under the law is released, health department officials estimated the process could go nearly two years.

That estimate was based on a review of 300,000 pages of redacted and nonredacted applications by two employees looking at 600 pages per day.

To help with the process, Brann said the health department asked the applicants to explain why they redacted certain sections of the applications. The applicants have been asked to answer within 30 days.

Cassel said her firm helped applicants with redactions and cited legal precedent as to what was redacted. Her firm looked at the redactions as essential to preserving her clients’ business plans.

“What entity is forced to give their business plan to their competitors? No one,” she said. “It just seems outrageous … If you make it public record, all your competitors can have it.”

Next steps

The move to Phase 2 could happen by the end of the year, Brann said, but she hasn’t heard anything definitive.

One hiccup could come from a open records request that the health department disclose the names of the secret panel that scored the license applications. The department had until Sept. 30 to turn in the names, but it’s resisting the request and has filed an appeal, the Inquirer reported.

“You could imagine if people knew that it was Person A, B and C on the panel – and if they knew that ahead of time – the suggestion is that they could have been inappropriately influenced,” Brann said.

Disclosing the names could force the state to appoint a new panel for Phase 2.

The program also is moving forward in two other areas:

Bart Schaneman can be reached at