Department of Health requires a physician or pharmacist to be present during hours of operation at facilities
STATE COLLEGE — Behind a locked glass door, about half dozen people sat in black leather chairs with shiny metallic armrests arranged atop a bright green carpet and set beside rustic wooden tables.
They sipped from paper cups and watched as a cooking show played on a television hung above an artificial fireplace.
The scene was reminiscent of a hip coffee shop, but in reality it’s a medical facility — a dispensary approved by the state to dole out medical marijuana to patients carrying certification cards.
The dispensary along State College’s North Atherton Street is called Nature’s Medicines, and it opened in June for business.
The goal is to supply patients with the right products and potencies to alleviate pain and other symptoms caused by the 21 “serious medical conditions” deemed by the state to qualify for medical marijuana use, said Angel Rodriguez, the dispensary’s general manager.
“We want to determine what your normality is so we can bring you back to that,”he said, of his employees’ philosophy when dealing with patients, who have reported great relief after receiving the drug.
“That’s what I’m out here for,” Rodriguez said. “I want to hear those stories. They just get better.”
When patients enter Nature’s Medicines, they are greeted at a reception window. There, they must explain the reason for their visit, and, if that reason is appropriate, a glass door is unlocked, granting entry to the modern waiting room.
“We are seeing a lot of children, elderly,” Rodriguez said.
In that waiting room earlier this month, patients handed over certification cards and state identification while they waited for medical marijuana experts to lead them to a separate, closed-off room.
The state Department of Health requires that dispensaries have a physician or pharmacist in the building during hours of operation, and Rodriguez, himself, has a medical background in nursing.
It’s those medical professionals who help patients choose the right products and doses of THC — tetrahydrocannabinol, marijuana’s psychoactive component. Patients’ personal doctors can also make recommendations.
Typically, patients will be prescribed the lowest dose of THC, which will be increased until desired relief is reached, said April Hutcheson, a Department of Health spokeswoman.
Oils for vaporization, transdermal patches, ointments, capsules and tinctures are among the products that Rodriguez said his dispensary distributes.
Because rules are strict, Rodriguez said he could not show off any of those products or allow them to be photographed.
Until recently, state law allowed only the sale of processed cannabis like the products Rodriguez mentioned. But in April, officials added marijuana flower — the plant’s green leafy buds — to the approved list.
Pending a favorable inspection by the state, Rodriguez said flowers could be available at Nature’s Medicine later in August.
“We are very excited because it brings down the costs for the patients,” he said.
It could be a great benefit to patients because processed products are more expensive than unprocessed flowers, and medical insurance does not cover those costs because marijuana has not received legitimacy at the federal level.
“It’s an all-cash business,” Rodriguez said, pointing out an ATM positioned near the business’ reception desk.
The all-cash rule is similar to the insurance problem, with federally insured banks unwilling to deal with a business selling marijuana, which is still considered illegal at the federal level.
Altoona site not yet dispensing
Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Program was signed into law in April 2016, and in a first round of permitting, 27 companies were approved to open a total of 52 dispensaries.
Lebanon Wellness LLC was approved for an Altoona site.
Earlier this month, Department of Health spokesman Nate Wardle confirmed that a permit still exists for the Altoona site at 514 E. Pleasant Valley Blvd.
But at that time, the site was neither deemed operational or dispensing medical marijuana to patients.
“The majority of the dispensaries that are not operational are scheduling their final inspection at this time,” Wardle said. “Once their final inspection takes place, and they are deemed operational, the dispensary will then be able to set their opening date.”
When Wardle shared that information, 29 Pennsylvania dispensaries were deemed operational, with all but one dispensing products.
In February, Anthony Bartkowiak, an Altoona-based internal medicine doctor who is approved to issue medical marijuana cards to qualifying patients, said the Altoona site was scheduled for an inspection and likely would open soon after.
In April, Bartkowiak spoke through a secretary, saying he had no update on a scheduled opening, and an attempt to reach him for this article was unsuccessful.
The second phase of permitting is underway, and the Department of Health shows applications for another 169 sites across the state — including 15 in the Mirror’s coverage area. Only a fraction of those permits will be awarded.
Because not all approved dispensaries are operational, some patients who visit Nature’s Medicine travel more than an hour to the State College location, Rodriguez said.
Those who travel far distances to purchase medical marijuana are often sold a larger quantity than local customers, who can easily visit the store.
“We don’t want them to have to come down here every week, when they live far away,” Rodriguez said.
The most a patient can be provided is a 30-day supply every 30 days, according to Hutcheson.
So far, Nature’s Medicines’ operations have gone smoothly with overwhelming support from the community, Rodriguez said.
“We were expecting some backlash,” he said, explaining he’s received little. “There are some challenges, but there is nothing grand.”