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Friday March 19, 2021

By Trevor Ross


Pennsylvania greenlit the sale of medical marijuana in 2016 with strict limitations, including confining all edibles to pill capsules, and the continued prohibition of smoking. The sale of whole flower was approved in 2018, shortly after the state’s first dispensaries opened, though even today, smoking remains illegal – all Pennsylvania flower must be consumed via vaporizer.

What else can you expect if you’re a cannabis user moving to Pennsylvania, or thinking about applying for the state medical marijuana program? Let’s visit a PA dispensary.

Visiting a Pennsylvania Dispensary

Most dispensaries in Pennsylvania are multi-state operators – chains that open dispensaries across multiple states where the sale of cannabis is legal. This has led to a standardization of experience like you may find at Starbucks. Many dispensaries are fluorescently lit, carefully decorated, and offer the same-or-better customer service that you would expect anywhere else.

New patients should anticipate a brief bit of paperwork similar to what you'd complete in a doctor’s waiting room, just a few questions and some legal disclosures. Returning patients are often greeted by name. When your name is called, you will be invited in through an electronically locked door to the room where you will purchase your cannabis.

A pharmacist filling out a form next to a container of cannabis
Prior to purchasing, a pharmacist will help ensure you are educated and will know what to expect. photo credit

Sizes can vary from one to several budtenders waiting behind the counter to serve as your personal shopper and answer any questions you have, but first-time patients will need to speak to the pharmacist before buying anything.

The pharmacist’s role here is to act as a liaison from the state medical marijuana program, and to educate each patient on the basic information of their new medicine. Aside from answering any questions you may have, they will make sure you know about different cannabinoids and terpenes, and what effects you can expect. No pop quiz, just a welcome message from the program.

Some pills and tincture
Some consumers will be disappointed to hear that the closest thing they will find to edibles is pills or tinctures. photo credit

Once you’ve reached the counter, you will have your own budtender who will quickly fill your order, or browse the menu with you while you decide. Unfortunately, this is where you will find among the highest legal prices in the country. If you’re looking for gummy candy or cold drinks, you’re also out of luck. Edibles in Pennsylvania mean pills or whatever you put your tincture in. But if the forms disappoint, the range of strains will not. While whole flower is limited, vape and concentrate varieties are vast enough that you will find something you like.

Expect to pay with cash, as federal banking laws still do not support marijuana businesses, though some dispensaries use cashless ATMs that work like debit transactions. And if this whole dispensary process seems arduous at all, it can be streamlined by placing orders online beforehand. Just show up during your chosen pickup window and you’ll be in and out in minutes.

How Pennsylvania Dispensaries Compare to Other States

If you noticed a theme above of people waiting at every turn to answer your questions, it’s because the system has been designed to inform, educate, and serve patients as best they can. Some seasoned smokers may be disappointed by the sanitized consumer culture; but conversely, new cannabis patients wary of arcane head shops will be relieved to find a familiar retail experience.

On the west coast and in other developed markets, shoppers are often free to roam the shop, ask questions at their leisure, and largely be left alone to make their choices. Patients accustomed to this may find the medical process in Pennsylvania strict or antiquated, and they wouldn’t be wrong in feeling so. 

Governor Tom Wolf
With Governor Tom Wolf's support, it is hoped that cannabis legalization in Pennsylvania will progress. photo credit

Unfortunately, a cripplingly cautious rollout of the program, among other factors, has led to sluggish production and proliferation of marijuana in Pennsylvania, where legal cannabis is often more expensive than the black market. But both Governor Tom Wolf and Lt. Governor John Fetterman, who will run for US Senate next term, remain relentless supporters of decriminalization and expanded access to cannabis. And in 2019, then-Department of Health Secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine – since selected to the Biden administration – expanded the list of qualifying conditions, including anxiety.

Combined with federal legislation efforts and pressure from neighboring states granting far greater access, Pennsylvanians have reason to hope that the red tape binding the hands of patients, growers, and retailers alike, may soon fall away. Until then, the dispensary experience in Pennsylvania will remain a palatable alternative to the past, but a paltry turn toward the future – or, compared with other states, the present.

Have you shopped in a dispensary in Pennsylvania? How was your experience? Share in the comments!

Photo Credit: Governor Tom Wolf (license)


Trevor Ross Trevor Ross

Trevor Ross is a writer, medical marijuana patient and cannabis advocate. He holds an MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has previously worked as a copywriter, a teacher, a bartender, and followed Seattle sports for SidelineBuzz. Originally from Washington state, you can find him now working in his garden or restoring his house in Scranton, PA, and he can be reached through LinkedIn.

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