It has been more than two years since the medical marijuana legislation was signed into law in the state of Pennsylvania.

While the implementation process by the Department of Health has been a bit lengthy, it has also been thorough. Now, those locally hoping to find relief through the plant won’t need to travel far for it.

While there were a few certification centers in the area, most dispensaries were more than a two-hour drive at one point. Today, there are now two certification centers as well as a dispensary currently in operation in Uniontown.

According to the state’s Department of Health, the Medical Marijuana Program will provide access to medical marijuana for patients with serious medical conditions “through a safe and effective method of delivery that balances patient need for access to the latest treatments with patient care and safety.”

Under the law, Pennsylvania residents who have serious medical conditions as certified by an approved physician are considered medical marijuana patients. There are 21 conditions and include: autism, cancer, Crohn’s disease, amyotrophy lateral sclerosis, intractable seizures, multiple sclerosis, neuropathies, inflammatory bowel disease, damage of the spinal cord, chronic neuropathic pain, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Huntingdon’s disease, opioid addiction, Parkinson’s disease, sickle cell anemia and post traumatic stress disorder.

Dr. Roxanne Rick, who owns and operates Cannabis Care Certifying Center in Uniontown with her business partner Terry Vassar, said she started out with Rio Health in Monroeville as a suboxone clinic because opioids had taken five of her friends.

She ran that business for about two years before someone approached her on two different occasions earlier this year to see if she might be interested in certification for medical marijuana.

“I really didn’t respond after the first inquiry but after the second inquiry, I decided to try it,” she said, adding that the possibility of weening someone off an opioid addiction with medical marijuana is an amazing thing.

“I never considered suboxone as a cure for opioids,” Rick said. “But no one has ever died from marijuana use.”

State Sen. Pat Stefano, who was a big backer of the medical marijuana bill, said one of the platforms for the bill was the possibility of getting away from opioids and therefore the opioid crisis for pain management.

“This helps manage pain without taking an individual down the path of addiction,” he said. “This is a plant provided for us, so why not harness its powers? Why take these harsh chemicals (opioids) when we have this natural resource?”

Vassar, who is a recovered addict of 20 years, is currently working through his nonprofit group 180 Degrees Empowerment (www.180degreesempowerment.com) to create a rebirthing center/halfway house for opioid addicts who have been released from prison. Introducing medical marijuana as a step-down drug will be part of that process.

Rick said in order for a person to become certified for medical marijuana use, they must visit the Patients and Caregivers Registry on the Department of Health’s website and create a patient profile. Then they need to get an official diagnosis down on paper from their doctor and then bring that diagnosis to a certification center.

At Cannabis Care Certifying Center, Dr. Krishna Jetti looks over the diagnosis during a consult with the patient and then approves them for a certification card.

The cost to certify through the state is $50 and the certification center charges an additional $180. Certifications through Cannabis Care Certifying Center are good for one year.

Patients themselves can register for an ID card, or individuals who are the caregivers of the patient can register for an ID card and complete a background check.

Once the certification card is obtained, the certified individual then goes to a dispensary to obtain the product.

Corinne Ogrodnik is the chief executive officer and co-founder of Maitri Medicinal at 27 W. Main St., Uniontown. According to Ogrodnik, this is the only dispensary in Fayette County and added that as of yet there are no dispensaries operating in Greene, Somerset or Westmoreland counties.

She said that in Pennsylvania the approved forms of medical marijuana include capsules, oils, topical forms (including gel, creams, transdermal patches or ointments), tinctures and liquids or other forms medically appropriate for administration by vaporization or nebulization, including dry leaf or plant form.

When a patient walks into the dispensary, Ogrodnik said the pharmacist will hold a consultation with them to discuss the different kinds of medicines and what might be best for what ailment.

Ogrodnik said their pharmacist is Terri Kroh, who has been practicing for over 25 years and has spent the last year to year and a half fully immersing herself in research and studies concerning medical marijuana. Along with an active license for pharmacy, Kroh had to take a four-hour medical training course and a two-hour compliance course through the Department of Health.

“If this is their first time and they want a one-on-one consultation with the pharmacist, she will discuss their medical history and from there recommend doses and forms of medical marijuana,” Ogrodnik said.

If they’re not brand new and they want a streamline approach, they don’t have to talk to the pharmacist but they are still welcome to talk with a patient advisor or any of the pharmacy technicians.

“What we are trying to do is make everyone who walks through the doors as comfortable as possible,” Ogrodnik said. “We want to educate, inform and work with you. We always try to keep as many products available as possible because we want to make sure that if you make the trip, you’re getting what you need.”

“One of the best aspects of all of this is that the patient has a role in deciding what’s best for them, rather than carte blanche taking medicines that the doctor says they should take,” Stefano said. “You’re treating some unique challenges on the pain relief side and the patients know what’s working and what’s not.”

Those approved to run a dispensary have to go through an incredibly rigorous vetting program.

“And then it takes months to compile the application required by the Department of Health,” Ogrodnik said. “After that it takes months for them to evaluate the application.”

Ogrodnik didn’t get into this line of work because of the business aspect of things. She said she has a personal connection.

“I have a chronic neurological condition and when my husband (Joseph Vesely, co-founder of Maitri Medicinal) and I traveled to Colorado recently, he suggested that I go to a dispensary out there. They recommended a product for my neuropathy and the profound relief I had made me dedicated to this cause.”

Pain relief is the No. 1 cause so far that people have come into the dispensary for, seeking relief, she said.

“One gentleman had surgery and just could not get any relief from the pain, so he purchased some capsules for night time and he slept so well that he came back the next day to find something to help him get through the pain during the day,” Ogrodnik said.

She added that the vast majority of their patients so far are over 60 years old and the second-highest age category is 50 to 60 years of age.

The top five conditions that the dispensary has seen in patients to this point have been cancer, autism, seizures Parkinsons and PTSD for veterans.

Ogrodnick confirmed that insurance does not cover the cost of the medical marijuana, so participants must pay out of pocket.

“We do have a payment form called CamPay, which is basically like a debit card that people can sign up for,” she said. “They load money onto the card and then it is debited from the account.”

Ogrodnik added that the Department of Health has committed to subsidizing purchases for patients who are under a certain income level but did not know when that might begin happening.

April Hutcheson, communications director for the Department of Health, said the law does allow for a fund to help people who cannot afford to pay for medical marijuana. However, there isn’t a timeline for that fund to become active.

“We are still in the first phase of the program, and it is anticipated that the fund will become active once the second phase of grower/processors and dispensaries are fully operational.”

Hutcheson said there is assistance available for those who may need financial help obtaining the medical marijuana ID card.

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