The first of ongoing reporting that looks at cannabis in Pennsylvania, NBC10 reporter Alicia Lozano goes behind the scenes at the World Medical Marijuana Conference & Expo in Pittsburgh.
Eighty miles outside Pittsburgh a billboard asked drivers which option they would prefer to treat pain: opioids or medical marijuana? “The choice should be yours,” the sign read.
Breaking news and the stories that matter to your neighborhood.
The billboard spoke to two of the biggest issues facing Pennsylvania — addiction and the push to join a rapidly expanding green rush.
It’s no wonder, then, that the World Medical Marijuana Conference & Expo was held in Pittsburgh Friday and Saturday. Co-hosted by Greenhouse Ventures, a Philadelphia-based incubator for medical cannabis businesses, the convention brought together researchers, veterans, doctors, advocates and entrepreneurs.
Some of the usual suspects were in attendance. Aging hippies in Hawaiian shirts? Check. Misfits with neck tattoos? Check. Guys blowing glass pipes? Check.
More striking were the business suits and young children, the two state senators who greeted marijuana advocates like old friends. This is the brave new world of cannabis and it's business all the way.
Pennsylvania stands to make an untold millions of dollars when medical marijuana gets off the ground next year. Extra revenue will come in the form of new jobs not just in the immediate industry, but ancillary services, as well.
Transportation, construction, banking and pharmaceuticals could all benefit if the state avoids some of the pitfalls made by New Jersey and Maryland. While a case can be made that both neighboring states are struggling because, at their core, lawmakers don’t want medical marijuana to flourish, Pennsylvania does not appear to have that problem.
Sen. Daylin Leach (D - Pa. 7th) and Sen. Mike Folmer (R - Pa. 48th) do not anticipate any hurdles. The two co-sponsored Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana legislation and both have been vociferous advocates to continue its expansion all the way to recreational use.
“It’s inevitable,” Leach said with a determined grin. "It's going to happen."
Folmer was only slightly more tepid about marijuana’s success in the Keystone State. A cancer survivor turned advocate, Folmer and his wife both convalesced using cannabis-based treatment.
The lawmaker from Lebanon in south central Pennsylvania has previously admitted to crossing state lines to procure the drug while undergoing chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Medical marijuana was not legal at the time, but it was the only thing that helped him bounce back, he said. He has been cancer-free for almost five years. Meanwhile, his wife suffers from neuropathy and uses a high concentrate CBD oil for her pain. CBD is a non-psychoactive form of cannabis that does not get people stoned. It is much easier to procure than THC, which does provide a high.
Both remain illegal at the federal level.
Despite his personal use, Folmer said he was initially skeptical about medical marijuana legislation. His district is solidly red and he worried what voters would think. But times are changing. Cannabis has morphed from a fringe lifestyle to a bipartisan issue attracting diverse stakeholders, advocates and users.
Outside the convention, a motley crew of attendees wandered the manicured streets of downtown Pittsburgh to capture the radiant sunset on their smartphones. A gaggle of Steelers fans gathered on a corner next to pharmaceutical types in sharp suits and briefcases. A young woman wearing marijuana leaf socks puffed on a vape.
Sitting on a ledge overlooking one of Pittsburgh’s three rivers, Tim and Bob shared a joint. The two best friends asked that their last names not be published yet were not shy about smoking pot in public. Bob said he is a civil rights lawyer and Tim distributes towels at a local gym. They met while practicing kundalini yoga.
Bob likes to chat about science fiction and, specifically, the space-time continuum. Tim just rolls his eyes.
“I never know what he’s talking about,” he said.
Bob has been smoking pot since he was 15 years old. He is now 65 and uses it daily to help with anxiety. Tim just likes it.
Their daily ritual brought them to the steps of the medical marijuana conference yet neither stepped inside.
“It’s too expensive,” Tim said.
Tickets for the general public cost $700.
Indeed the World Medical Marijuana Conference was more for entrepreneurs than consumers. Most of the attendees have some kind of stake in the cannabis industry. From whimsical products like CBD soda, which tastes like Captain Crunch cereal, to fancy security systems for dispensaries, everyone here is pushing for the green rush.
Among the celebrities present was Philly rapper Freeway, who shared his battle with kidney disease and how cannabis helped him get through it. Former NFL star Ricky Williams talked about the benefits of marijuana to treat concussions and other head injuries.
Lindy Snider, daughter of late Flyers owner Ed Snider, took a back-row seat at various panels, but her interest in ancillary services is already well documented. She submitted an application for a massive grow site near Bucks County and serves on the board of Kind Financial, a seed-to-sale software. Like many of the vendors here, her interest in less in the plant and more in the businesses surrounding it.
Many people in the pot industry like to call California’s largely unregulated cannabis market the Wild West. It’s a convenient descriptor for a state that went medical in 1996 and has had a ubiquitous relationship with pot since the 1960s.
If California is the Wild West then Pennsylvania is a bellwether for what happens next in the industry. Rep. Eric Nelson (R - Hempfield) called it a “baby step state." First came medical marijuana and industrial hemp and now some players are already considering how to expand the so-called cannabiz.
“We use to get the question, ‘Do dopers want this?,” the Republican said during his panel on industrial hemp, a lesser known crop that can be used for manufacturing, clothing and even food.
“Now, it’s the farm bureau and individual small business farmers saying ‘I need full access to this. Give us the freedom to run our farms the way we want.’”
That is a very different conversation than the war on drugs. With Delaware weighing recreational pot and lawmakers eyeing it in Pennsylvania, the Northeast corridor could soon witness a domino effect. The question no longer seems to be if marijuana will become legal nationwide, but instead when.