BETHLEHEM, Pa. (WLVT) - Vehicles start to fill up the parking lot at Keystone Canna Remedies' location on Stefko Boulevard before the store even opens for the day.
Waiting inside their vehicles are caregivers and medical marijuana (also known as cannabis) patients, as employees donning masks and holding clipboards greet them. The staffers head into the dispensary to grab the orders, and the cycle continues throughout the day.
Businesses who grow, process, and/or sell medical marijuana are considered "essential" in Pennsylvania during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Dr. Rachel Levine, the state's health secretary.
Keystone was the first dispensary to open in Pennsylvania two years ago. Chief operating officer Joan Guadagnino said medical marijuana continues to gain interest in the state.
"We know it's not a cure-all," she said. "We know it doesn't work for everyone, but it does work for some people."
According to the Pennsylvania Department Health, close to 287,000 people have registered for the state's medical marijuana program as of Friday, April 17. Guadagnino said Keystone serves about 10,000 unique patients in the Lehigh Valley and northeast Pennsylvania.
"It's very nice to see -- and rewarding, I have to say -- when patients come in," she said. "Just the little things that they are able to do, they haven't been able to do. So, it's helpful for their quality of life."
In order to visit dispensaries in Pennsylvania, an approved physician must certify a registered patient has one of 23 "serious medical conditions," which include cancer, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, anxiety disorders, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Guadagnino said March was a good month. Sales were up, and the company added more customers. She said part of that may be due to panic buying, but Keystone also encouraged people at first to buy supplies for a longer period of time to avoid frequent trips.
"I think the anxiety levels were very high," she said. "Stress, people getting laid off, people not knowing what's going to happen tomorrow…”
April will be a different story, Guadagnino said, but no matter what, Keystone will stay open. While scaling back business hours at its locations in Bethlehem and Allentown, the company has kept 47 employees on payroll.
"I'm really proud of my staff that...they’re able to put themselves on the front line," Guadagnino said.
Pennsylvania has temporarily relaxed regulations when it comes to medical marijuana.
- Dispensaries can now serve customers outside of their buildings, which means employees can handle transactions in the parking lot.
- There’s no longer a limit on how many patients are assigned to a caregiver.
- When it comes to renewing caregiver applications, there’s no need for a background check.
- Instead of 30-day supplies, patients are now getting 90-day supplies.
- Consultations no longer have to be in person. They can be done remotely through a video conference or a phone call.
"We do have two days a week that we have assigned one of our physicians who's willing to do it and does consults for new patients," Guadagnino said. "Those days are very full. They've been full for the last two weeks, and we probably could go out for another month on those days being full."
Erica Daniels of Gladywne, Montgomery County, said she recently consulted a physician remotely. She created the nonprofit Hope Grows for Autism, inspired by her 15-year-old son Leo, who was diagnosed with autism in 2007. Daniels has been using medical marijuana to manage Leo's behavior through a tincture he takes three to four times a day.
"[He's] generally healthier, you know, generally happier," she said. "It's like night and day. If I couldn't go to the dispensary and get that, I don't know. We'd be in trouble."
Daniels traveled the country to find the best treatment for her son and said medical marijuana inspired her to start her nonprofit.
"The mission of Hope Grows is research, education and advocacy, but what I learned was that we can have all these things, and if we don't have access to appropriate medicines, it doesn't mean all that much," she explained. "So, that became the problem. We're educated now. We know about it, but how do we get access?"
While Pennsylvania works on expanding access -- especially during the pandemic -- health experts warn that medical marijuana won’t prevent or treat COVID-19.
"Those individuals who've been certified to use for the treatment of those conditions can be encouraged to continue the use of medical marijuana strictly for those purposes," said Dr. Timothy Friel, the chief of Lehigh Valley Health Network's department of medicine, "but I don't want anyone out there who's either never used medical marijuana or those who are using it for an approved reason to feel that it will be protective to them -- or if they do get exposed and infected, that it will reduce or mitigate their course. There's just no evidence to support that at this time."
Though it might not be proven to help with coronavirus, medical marijuana advocates say the products are still needed right now.
"Dispensaries are really like pharmacies. So, pharmacies are open. You can't just discontinue your medicine, right? So, the same thing goes for medical cannabis," Daniels said.
Nationwide, the movement to legalize marijuana continues to grow. So far, 11 states and Washington D.C. allow recreational use. Pennsylvania is among 33 states that have legalized medical marijuana.
"We'd like to see every state have autism as a qualifying condition," Daniels said. "There are many right now, but I think that if cannabis is an essential business, and it's still illegal, that's something to really think about."
"I'd like to see these medical programs really, really work well," Guadagnino said. "Take all the kinks out of it. Make sure it's working perfectly, because I've seen a lot of states -- once we flip over to adult use, they're not ready for them."
In the meantime, dispensaries like Keystone are relying on caregivers and staff to get medical marijuana to patients.
"They're in contact with a lot of people. We don't know where they've been, what they're doing, and how they are following the protocols," Guadagnino said. "So, I really appreciate them. I think they're doing an excellent job."
The company had planned to open its newest location in Stroudsburg this week, but now, that’s on hold.
"I'm hoping that could happen within the next month, if some businesses are released," Guadagnino said. "We'd like to do that, because a lot of our patient base comes down to Bethlehem, and we'd like to have something up there for them."
For more on Pennsylvania's medical marijuana program, click HERE.