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Advocates Say Dried Leaf Medical Marijuana Offers Savings And Other Benefits

Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana dispensaries may eventually be permitted to sell the product in plant form for vaping, after a vote by the state's medical marijuana advisory board recommended a change in the regulations. 

Currently, medicinal cannabis in Pennsylvania must be processed into another form, like a pill or oil. Cannabis advocates say this makes it more expensive, and point out that for some people medical marijuana is already cost prohibitive because insurance companies won’t pay for it.

Jeffrey Miron is an economist who specializes in drug policy at Harvard and the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. Miron said the savings of buying leaf marijuana over processed forms is similar to those of other goods and services.

“You could go to a pizza parlor and buy an already made pizza, that’s very convenient, but it will cost more in terms of dollars, than if you bought flour and tomato sauce and cheese and made a pizza for yourself at home,” he said. “So the same is going to be true of different forms of marijuana.”

If dried leaf is eventually sold at Pennsylvania's dispensaries, it likely won’t make a big change to the state’s economy as a whole, though there might be a modest impact to the tax base.

“Production and distribution and consumption of marijuana is, for the most part, already occurring,” said Miron.

In addition to cost savings, advocates say there are other benefits to consuming medical marijuana in the plant form. Depending on dosages, dried leaf may work faster and can have lower THC levels.

“It’s about a quarter of the potency in the flower form, because it’s not as concentrated [as it is in processed forms],” said Trent Hartley, co-found of Cresco Yeltrah, a marijuana grower located in Brookville.

If dried leaf is eventually permitted, it would still be illegal to smoke medical marijuana in Pennsylvania, though there would be no practical way to prohibit this once patients purchase the product.

“We will suggest that you will use a vaporizer. From what we know…it’s probably a little healthier to vape than to smoke,” said Hartley. “We will not be selling glass pipes, rolling papers or things like that.”

Patients who are caught smoking could lose their medical marijuana card or face legal consequences.

“They could catch a paraphernalia charge,” said Patrick Nightingale, the head of Pittsburgh’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

The final decision on dried leaf medicinal cannabis is up to Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine, who has up to a year to adopt or reject this potential change. 

Photo Credit: Dank Depot/Flickr

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.