HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvanians bought almost $100 million worth of medical marijuana in the first year it was available, the Department of Health announced Friday.
"The first year that the state's medical marijuana program has been operational tells us that this program is working to help Pennsylvanians in need of this medication," Governor Tom Wolf said. "Patients are realizing the benefits and there has been steady, positive progress that I am pleased to report."
About 83,000 Pennsylvanians have medical marijuana cards. Those patients have used their cards for more than 600,000 "dispensing events" at the state's 45 operating dispensaries.
Pennsylvania collects a 5 percent tax on the sales from the growers to dispensaries, but there is no sales tax for patients who buy medical marijuana from the dispensaries, said Jeff Johnson, a Department of Revenue spokesman.
The Department of Health said that there were $132 million in medical marijuana sales, but department spokesman Nate Wardle said that total included sales from growers to dispensaries as well as sales from the dispensaries to the public.
Sales from growers to dispensaries accounted for "more than $40 million," Wardle said.
The medical marijuana program was signed into law by Gov. Wolf April 17, 2016. It has permitted 25 grower/processors and 50 dispensaries. Each of the dispensaries can have three locations, but so far only 45 are operational. All Phase I grower/processors are operational according to the Department of Health.
Advocates have complained that prices at dispensaries are too high and that there's uneven availability of some medical marijuana products, said Patrick Nightingale, executive director of the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society, a Pittsburgh-based non-profit advocacy group.
The availability of products can be an issue if a patient discovers that there's one particular kind of medical marijuana that offers relief, but finds it's only available in dispensaries in the state's urban areas instead of those elsewhere in the state.
The price issue has been problematic. Patients must pay for medical marijuana out-of-pocket tbecause insurance plans won't pay for it, Nightingale said.
"It's heart-breaking for patients to say, I'm sorry I can't afford this, so I'm going back to opiates" because they're covered by insurance, he said. "That's the failing of our program."
Some of those issues might be alleviated as the state adds more dispensaries, creating more competition, Nightingale said.
The state has less than one-third of the possible 150 dispensary locations allowed by law.
Health Secretary Rachel Levine said the state's goal in the coming year is to increase the number of growers and dispensaries operating.
The cost of medical marijuana was brought up by citizens who attended the first event held as part of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman's listening tour focusing on the issues related to legalizing recreational use of marijuana by adults.
Several speakers at Fetterman's Harrisburg listening tour event suggested that legalizing recreational marijuana would make it more affordable. Nightingale added that legalizing the drug for all adults would also eliminate any potential unfairness created by the state's limits on which conditions qualify for medical marijuana.
Pennsylvania only allows medical marijuana for 21 serious medical conditions, including seizure disorders, AIDS, Multiple sclerosis and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Nightingale said that as state's have legalized recreational use of marijuana, they've also legalized home-growing of it, which makes the drug affordable.