Medical maijuana growers prepare to open shops

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By Phil Yacuboski

Since Gov. Tom Wolf signed medical marijuana legislation into law back in April of last year, companies are just now getting to the set-up-shop phase.

Pennsylvania Medical Solutions received one of two growing licenses in the northeast region and will open a marijuana growing operation on Rosanna Street in Scranton’s Green Ridge section.

“We’re excited to expand operations to another state, and we are deeply committed to the Scranton area,” said Kyle Kingsley, M.D., chief executive officer of Pennsylvania Medical Solutions and its parent company Vireo Health, in a statement. “We’ve had tremendous success in other states with a distinct focus on a medical model for cannabis, as it aligns with our physician-led, patient-focused mission.”

The company will be looking for a number of positions including a general manager, security officers and a chemist. It hopes to hire local residents.

PMS is not without controversy. The Pennsylvania Department of Health is being sued by BrightStar Biomedics LLC which argues that, since PMS is involved in a criminal investigation in another state, it should not be awarded the Scranton license. Investigators charged two former PMS workers in Minnesota for illegally transporting cannabis oil.

Columbia Care, which plans to open a dispensary location on Kidder Street in Wilkes-Barre, will finalize staffing by the end of the year.

“The Kidder Street facility construction project will be completed in early 2018,” said Nicholas Vita, the CEO of Columbia Care.

Not everyone is happy with the process the state used to hand out the dispensary licenses. Geoff Whaling, president of Bunker Bontanicals, paid $10,000 to be considered to grow medical marijuana, but lost out on the bid. His proposed growing facility, in a 1960s-era underground bunker in Lower Pottsgrove Township, Montgomery County, was denied a license.

“I was advocating for a Pennsylvania-first initiative,” said Whaling, who worked for years to pass medical marijuana legislation. He also serves as the president of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council. His company has investors, engineers and board members – all from Pennsylvania. “The department decided against that,” he said. “The legislation wasn’t clear, so they felt they had to allow all states in.”

Whaling, who called himself a patient advocate, said his company invested almost $300,000 in engineering drawings and permit fees to be up and running in six months.

Bunker Botanicals was one of 177 companies that applied for a medical marijuana dispensary license in Pennsylvania. Unlike any other state, the number of licenses the state is awarding is significantly higher than other states. There were 27 dispensary licenses and 12 grower/processor licenses awarded.

“I am confident that the state is going to reconcile many of these challenges either themselves or they are going to do so because they are threatening to sue,” he added. But Whaling said he does not plan to file suit. He intends to reapply for another license in the region that includes Montgomery County as well as another region.

A total of 52 dispensary licenses will eventually be awarded when the medical marijuana program is fully implemented in 2018. April Hutcheson, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health said there is currently no timetable for opening the next round of permits.

“There are Pennsylvanians suffering today from cancer, Parkinson’s and epilepsy who need to legally use medical marijuana to alleviate their symptoms. We continue to move forward with a patient-focused program designed to give Pennsylvanians with serious-medical conditions, as outlined in the law, relief,” she said.

However, some in the business community still have concerns about medical marijuana and its effect on the workforce, especially testing and how to be sure an employee isn’t abusing the drug while returning to work.

“Everyone wants a safe workplace,” said David N. Taylor, president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association. “The only safe number of workplace injuries is zero. To be able to protect employers from liability when employees in that workplace are lawfully making use of those drugs as per the recent change, those things should have been included at the outset.”

Taylor said if any issues arise with workers who are hurt on the job due to someone impaired by medical marijuana, it will likely be necessary for employers to respond.

“We would seek legislative solutions, to litigate it and to seek answers through whatever means we can,” he said. “If the treatments are medically valid, there are going to be consequences whether intended or unintended. From the employer community perspective, there’s a lot going on in the workforce already, whether it’s employee retention, managing the workforce or adapting to market changes. This is just an unwelcome set of complications.”

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