by Elizabeth Coady
Tucked in the rear first floor of 7811 Germantown Ave. is Dr. Rebecca Maury’s newly founded medical marijuana practice, Herbal Wellness Rx.
Maury, a Chestnut Hill resident who is board-certified in internal medicine and hospice and palliative care, this week quietly begins treating patients seeking to alleviate suffering from 17 serious medical conditions for which the state of Pennsylvania allows medicinal marijuana to be used.
Maury is among 433 physicians who have completed four hours of state-mandated training and are certified to treat patients seeking medical marijuana. Pennsylvania is one of 30 states that have legalized the use of the medicinal plant, still classified as an illegal drug by federal authorities, according to Governing.com. The Keystone state’s Medical Marijuana Program was approved by legislators in April 2016 and went live Feb. 15 when the first dispensaries opened.
“It’s still something that’s coming out of the shadows,” Maury said. “But it’s something I believe in. I feel happy to be part of the movement to get it out in the mainstream.”
The Washington, D.C., native has been ahead of the curve on using herbs to heal for decades. Even before enrolling in medical school, she attended the New Mexico School for Natural Therapeutics, a massage therapy and holistic wellness program, and the Southwest School for Botanical Medicine, where she studied the healing benefits of herbs.
According to her biography at HerbalWellnessRX.com, Maury then “spent several years traveling through the Southwest, wildcrafting herbs and studying their properties.”
She subsequently graduated summa cum laude from the University of New Mexico with a bachelor’s in biology and then attended the university’s medical school. She found her way to Philadelphia via her internist’s residency at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
At Jefferson, she gravitated toward hospice and palliative care and discovered her ease in comforting patients with life-threatening and end-of-life illnesses.
“I was always interested in the healing arts,” Maury said, recalling how she would take care of baby squirrels that fell out of trees. “I sort of always have wanted to take care of beings. That’s just part of my nature.”
That innate caring proved a gift when dealing with the sick and dying, which she says “has the potential to be a beautiful, natural transformation.”
Treating patients with medical marijuana is a natural evolution in her caring for the sick. As she witnessed Pennsylvania’s slow roll toward legalization over the last several years, she thought to herself, “Gosh, this is something I should be making available to people. It’s a natural remedy. It has a very low if any possibility for complications for addiction.”
She points out the plant was used for centuries as a medicinal herb before being stigmatized in the early 20th century, in part by the medical industry. Even now the drug is viewed with disdain or stigma among some members of society.
But increasingly, the evidence for the health benefits of marijuana is winning out over old biases. Today, marijuana is used to ameliorate glaucoma and epilepsy, alleviate nausea and boost appetite in cancer and AIDS patients, ease post-traumatic stress disorder, lessen neuropathy from chemotherapy’s side effects, aide in sleep disorders and improve spasticity in Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis sufferers, to name a few ways it’s currently used.
Cannabinoids, a chemical component of pot, also has an “amazing anti-inflammatory component,” Maury said.
Under the new state laws, physicians who treat patients will review their medical histories and issue a letter certifying they are eligible to use medical marijuana. The patient, who must already be enrolled and issued an ID to participate in the state’s program, then takes the physician’s letter to the dispensary where they consult with a pharmacist or nurse practitioner on the optimal form, strain and TCH concentration of their marijuana treatment. Patients must pay out-of-pocket for their treatments.
Pennsylvania’s law allows for medical marijuana to be sold in liquid, pill, tincture, oil, and topical forms but forbids the sale of leaf, although members of the state’s Medical Marijuana Advisory Board are currently considering including the sale of dried leaves to patients.
So far, 21,000 patients have registered to participate in the state’s medical marijuana program and 6,000 of those have been approved as eligible to participate by a physician, according to April Hutcheson, of the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
Pennsylvania has had the fastest rollout among state medical marijuana programs, according to Christine Visco, co-owner of TerraVida Holistic Center, one of the state’s 50 licensed dispensaries. Each licensed dispensary is allowed to operate in three locations in separate counties. TerraVida is licensed to operate dispensaries in Sellersville, Abington and Malvern.
“We saw 600 patients in our first two weeks just in our dispensary,” said Visco, whose Sellersville location in upper Bucks County is operational. “We planned on 70 in our first month. And there are a lot of patients just waiting in the wings.”
TerraVida originally planned to open a dispensary at 8319 Stenton Ave. in Mt. Airy, but community opposition supported by Philadelphia Councilwoman Cherelle Parker forced the company to give up on the location
The swell of demand has caused operating dispensaries to run out of product and TerraVida, as well as Keystone Shop in Devon, were both forced to limit their hours. Visco said about half of TerraVida’s patients arrive with no knowledge about the drug or its forms, while the other half show up with their preferred product bookmarked on the website Leafly.com, which she described as “like Consumer Reports for marijuana. It’s really worthwhile.”
Visco said ”the most exciting part about it is watching the patients” react with joy and relief at obtaining marijuana legally and she recalled how one of the dispensary’s first patients “just broke down sobbing because he’s been waiting 30 years to treat himself legally.”
Maury said legalizing the drug has a “real psychological benefit” to patients who may have used the drug illegally but are now able to do so with the approval of the palliative community.
“To have someone that is dealing with a life-limiting symptom to be able to sort of step back and be embraced by the palliative care community is a healing intervention,” she said.