In marijuana competition, a tension between clinical, alternative medicine – Allentown Morning Call
Tim Charles describes himself as a serial entrepreneur.
The Allentown native has dabbled in energy efficiency, international trade, manufacturing and real estate.
Now, Charles, CEO of PA Cannabis LLC, hopes to bring medical marijuana to Main Street via a dispensary that offers patients a holistic approach to health, private off-street parking and a comfortable ski-lodge-like atmosphere, smack in the middle of Emmaus.
He’s an evangelist for the medical benefits of cannabis, which he says helped his mother, Lucille Parker, recover from the debilitating effects of fibromyalgia and spinal stenosis.
“We want to have a good social impact,” said Charles, 61.
It’s a stark contrast to the highly clinical approach rolled out this week byTruVo Health Care, a
Lehigh County company led by Dr. Bruce Nicholson, director of Lehigh Valley Health Network’s division of pain medicine, and Jeff Snyder, who was CEO of Pocono Health Systems until its recent merger with LVHN.
With an emphasis on clinical research and producing pharmaceutical-grade cannabis products, TruVo hopes to acquire a permit to grow and process as well as dispense medical marijuana. Its dispensaries will “really feel like a medical establishment,” he said.
It’s about gaining credibility with doctors, so they will feel comfortable recommending medical cannabis to their patients, Nicholson said.
“If it is going to be considered a serious medical product, it has to move beyond the crunchy granola and be put in the context of a true pharmaceutical-type product,” he said.
In many states that have legalized medical marijuana, competition has developed between providers using a clinical model and others taking an alternative medicine approach, said Becky Dansky, legislative counsel with the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group.
“Some patients are more comfortable with a clinical dispensary, whereas for some patients, the reason they are using medical marijuana is they want to get away from the pharmaceutical culture, and for them that feels more natural and holistic,” she said.
Dispensaries, in particular, often end up reflecting their communities, she said. In more conservative places with reservations about medical marijuana, they have the buttoned-down look of pharmacies. In more laid-back locales, where it’s more accepted, they are less formal.
In Easton, the founders of Trident Healing Centers LLC — Williams Township’s Noelle Albanese and her husband Michael — want to deliver medical marijuana along with educational, counseling and other services for patients and their caregivers to create a robust support network.
The couple, both attorneys, were in a serious car crash in 2009 and suffered injuries that have required years of medical care. Neither was satisfied with the way it was delivered. It’s a common experience among her partners, all of whom are local to Northampton County, she said.
“We are all motivated by personal stories, against the traditional health care system we all had experienced,” Albanese said. “It is that you are providing this as an alternative to the traditional health care system.”
To put their plans into action, TruVo, Albanese and Charles will each need to win one of just four dispensary licenses allocated to northeastern Pennsylvania in Round 1 of the state’s medical marijuana roll out. Applications will be accepted between Feb. 20 and March 20.
State lawmakers legalized medical marijuana in 2016, charging the state Department of Health with creating a new, highly regulated industry from scratch. Within the new system, dispensaries function like retail drugstores, filling patients’ medical marijuana prescriptions.
Under the state’s law, dispensaries are subject to a raft of requirements governing how they handle marijuana, from the packaging and transportation of medical cannabis to on-site surveillance and security systems. Each must have a pharmacist or physician on staff.
Marijuana can’t be dispensed in leaf form, meaning it can’t be smoked. It will only be available in pills, ointments, oils and a liquid for use in vaporizers.
That’s one reason the state likely will see a good number of applications from entities with highly clinical models, and a tension between small operators and applicants with major health system or business backing, said Chris Goldstein, a Philadelphia marijuana legalization advocate.
PA Cannabis has been working on its own business plan for months, Charles said, lining up partners with experience in the industry and visiting operations in states that have medical marijuana industries up and running. It has its own website, pacann.com, as does TruVo.
The state’s recent decision to award only 27 of the 50 dispensary licenses authorized by the law in Phase 1 will intensify competition for dispensary licenses, said Dan Clearfield, an attorney at Harrisburg-based Eckert Seamans who is an expert in the state’s new law.
“That means you are going to need expertise in this area, either by running a dispensary in some other state or having extensive pharmaceutical experience,” Clearfield said.
Albanese knows that. Some of her likely out-of-state competition has approached her about investing in her business. But she thinks Trident’s locally based approach will count for something in the application process. She’s been talking to doctors and laying groundwork with social agencies.
“We want to make sure we are taking into account their true, complete health, their complete care plan,” Albanese said. “Many of the conditions Pennsylvania is currently listing as qualified for medical marijuana treatment are not just solved by medication alone.”
Charles and his partners think they have a good shot, in part because they have been working for months to comply with the law’s requirements. He said he has stocked his management team with experts in security, quality control and compliance, and has been working hard to secure community support.
He’d like it to be part of a larger, holistic wellness facility that would include a fitness center and other amenities. Its motto is “compassionate natural health.”
Charles said he knows he’ll face competitors from outside the state, and he thinks his company’s local ties are one of its strengths.
“The people of the Lehigh Valley run and own this operation,” he said. “Not someone from another state.”
MEDICAL MARIJUANA SCRAMBLE
• Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana for use in 17 medical conditions last year.
• On Feb. 20, the Department of Health will start accepting what is expected to be hundreds of applications for 27 dispensary and 12 grower-processor licenses.
• Patients whose doctors certify them as eligible are expected to have access to medical marijuana in 2018.