cure dispensary05.jpg

Items on display at the Cure Medical Marijuana Dispensary in the Kmart Plaza.

Pennsylvania is adding anxiety disorders and Tourette syndrome to the list of approved conditions for using medical marijuana.

A state department of health spokesman said it doesn't have estimates on how many residents have those conditions, but expects the anxiety component will lead to a significant increase in patients registering for medical marijuana.

Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana advisory board recommended the additions several months ago. It voted 5-3 on adding anxiety disorders and 7-1 for Tourette syndrome.

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That put the decisions in the hands of Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine. She announced her decision Thursday, saying the changes would go into effect July 20. 

[Video from the announcement, which also included comments on the research wing of the state's program, is available here.]


Careful review

“After a careful review of the medical literature available about these conditions, I have decided to approve this recommendation,” Levine said. “I do not take this decision lightly, and do have recommendations for physicians, dispensary pharmacists and patients in terms of the use of medical marijuana to treat these conditions.”

She also touted the fledgling research wing of Pennsylvania’s program, saying no other state has a similar program designed to provide clinical, evidence-based research on medical marijuana.

“A key component to approving conditions is to stimulate research on medical marijuana with those conditions,” she said.


‘Not first-line treatment’

For both conditions, Levine said, “medical marijuana is not first line treatment and should not replace traditional therapies but should be used in conjunction with them, when recommended by a physician.”

Levine advised anxiety disorder patients to continue counseling and therapy and noted that research indicates medical marijuana with low THC and high CBD content is more effective and is recommended for short-term use — but did not define “short-term.”

She also said medical marijuana is not recommended for children and adolescents with anxiety disorders, "as their brains are still developing,” and warned that pregnant women should not use medical marijuana "as the impacts on the fetus are unknown."


Big surge expected

Lancaster County’s only medical marijuana dispensary has been operating since March 2018 in the former Kmart plaza along Fruitville Pike in Manheim Township, and Ryan Smith is chief operating officer of the its parent company, Cure Holdings.

Asked Friday about the impact of adding anxiety, Smith referenced numbers the department released this spring showing that half the Pennsylvania residents allowed to use medical marijuana were approved because of severe chronic or intractable pain.

Given how pervasive anxiety is, he said, he could see it driving as much demand as pain does.

He encouraged anyone interested in using medical marijuana for anxiety to consult one of the more than 1,100 Pennsylvania doctors approved to certify patients.

After being certified, patients must then register with the state and get an ID card before being able to get medical marijuana from a dispensary.


Paying out of pocket

Dr. James Rochester of WorkNet Occupational Medicine in Lancaster is among roughly three dozen Lancaster County physicians the department lists as participating in the program.

However, he said, despite a ton of interest he has certified only one person; he primarily signed up to be able to be a second opinion on Family and Medical Leave Act cases.

“Will it help or not? It may,” he said of medical marijuana for anxiety, noting that there aren’t a lot of good clinical studies on marijuana.

He’d be interested in seeing the research on the subject, he said, including how big the studies were and whether they met the “gold standard” of being randomized, double-blind and placebo-controlled.

In any case, he said, insurance doesn’t cover medical marijuana, so those interested in trying it will pay for it out of pocket.