HARRISBURG — About two dozen medical marijuana patients protested outside the state Health Department on Wednesday to draw attention to shortcomings in the state’s medical marijuana program and call for action to make the drug more affordable and accessible.

The shortage of dry leaf marijuana in many of the state’s dispensaries was high on their list of grievances.

“Most patients prefer flower,” the dry leaf form of the drug, not just because it’s cheaper but also because people are becoming increasingly wary of vaping, said Jeff Riedy, executive director of the Lehigh Valley chapter of NORML. State Department of Health officials, while warning people about the danger of black market THC vaping cartridges, have insisted that products sold in dispensaries are safe.

Nature’s Medicine, a dispensary in Snyder County, is advertising on its website that because of the supply and demand issues, patients are limited to buying only two dry leaf cannabis products per order. That dispensary isn’t the only one making adjustments.

“Appallingly, some dispensaries have raised their prices on dry leaf” because of the shortage, Riedy said.

The issue is starkly important to patients who must pay out-of-pocket for marijuana because insurance doesn’t cover the cost of the drug, he said.

An ounce of dry leaf marijuana will cost $400 to $600 in the dispensary while a gram in a vaping cartridge will cost $60 to $100. An ounce of dry leaf can last a few weeks, while a vaping cartridge may only last a few days, depending on how often the patient uses it, Riedy said.

Riedy said the state’s growers simply haven’t been able to keep up with demand as patients have signed up for medical marijuana cards.

“Nobody expected it to grow so exponentially,” he said. There are more than 172,500 patients with medical marijuana cards in Pennsylvania, according to the Department of Health.

Pennsylvania in 2016 legalized the use of marijuana for medical treatment of 23 conditions and the state’s first dispensaries opened in February 2018.

There are now 67 medical marijuana dispensaries open across the state, Health Department spokesman Nate Wardle said Wednesday.

But while 19 marijuana-growing facilities are operating in the state, only 11 of them are currently shipping marijuana to the dispensaries, Wardle said.

In an interview for a series examining the state’s medical marijuana program last month, Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said state officials believe prices will fall as more growers and dispensaries open.

Like Riedy, Wardle said Health officials say the struggle to keep up with demand is a symptom of the program’s popularity with patients.

“Any product shortages are the result of the ever-growing medical marijuana program, and the fact that as new dispensaries become operational, they must order their entire stock at once,” he said.

“The department is continuing to work with our other Phase II Grower/Processors as they work to become operational as part of the permitting process. We know that once operationalized, it takes several months for medical marijuana plants to be grown and then processing has to occur.”

Protesters said they’d like the state to move on efforts to decriminalize marijuana and allow for patients to grow their own marijuana instead of buying it in the dispensaries.

Legislation introduced last week by two Democratic state senators — Daylin Leach and Sharif Street — would not only legalize adult use of marijuana but allow people to grow up to 10 plants of marijuana at home for their own use.

Gov. Tom Wolf has backed both decriminalization, as a short-term reform, and legalizing adult use of marijuana on the longer-term. Republicans who hold the majority in both chambers of the General Assembly have resisted calls for further changing the state’s marijuana laws.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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