Cannabis 101: Exploring Pennsylvania’s budding marijuana scene

The sales floor of Beyond/Hello, Center City Philadelphia's first medical marijuana dispensary is seen, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. The shop opened its doors on Thursday morning to patients and caregivers with medical marijuana cards issued by the state. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

By Ashley Adams

April 18, 2024

Are you a complete newbie when it comes to doobies? We’re here to help you navigate the cannabis landscape in Pennsylvania, where recreational marijuana still isn’t legal (but things are looking up).

So, you’re a Pennsylvanian who is just diving into the wonderful world of cannabis, huh?

Welcome. An important detail you should know up front: Unlike neighboring states like New Jersey, Maryland, New York, Delaware, and Ohio, recreational cannabis is not legal in Pennsylvania. The tide seems to finally be turning on that front though.

However, medical marijuana is legal in the commonwealth.

Since 2018, medical marijuana has been available for Pennsylvania patients 21 and older at dispensaries across the state. So once you have an approved physician certifying that you suffer from a qualifying medical condition, you’re eligible to shop at one of Pennsylvania’s 134 medical marijuana dispensaries.

Since it’s almost 4/20 — the official pot smokers’ holiday that, according to legend, began in the 1970s when a group of California teenagers would meet up after school at 4:20 p.m. to smoke, and evolved into the high holiday we know it as today thanks to (naturally) the Grateful Dead — this could be an ideal time for the cannabis-curious to begin their journey on Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana exchange (or, recreationally across the Delaware River in New Jersey or down I-83 in Maryland).

Proceed with caution, though, newbies. Here are some things you should probably know.

How do you get a medical marijuana card in Pennsylvania?

It’s just three easy steps to obtaining a medical marijuana card in the commonwealth. First, you need to get registered. Then, you need to get certified by a physician for a qualifying medical condition such as anxiety, Crohn’s disease, glaucoma, insomnia, or epilepsy. There are many other qualifying conditions. Finally, you pay for your card. Follow these instructions to become a cardholder.

What do you need to shop at a medical marijuana dispensary?

You must be 21 years old or older to visit a dispensary in Pennsylvania. You will also need to show your medical marijuana card as well as your ID, which can be your driver’s license, state ID, etc.

Dispensaries operate under strict rules, and you may be required to produce a medical marijuana card several times. So, it’s best to stay ready.

Regarding payment, it’s a good idea to have cash. The plant is still illegal, and because of federal banking restrictions, dispensaries can’t process credit cards. Some will take debit cards, though. It’s a good idea to call ahead to find out how you can pay.

You can also pre-order your products on the dispensary’s website, then you just have to run to the brick-and-mortar store to pick it up.

Anything else I should know about my first trip to a dispensary?

Visiting a dispensary for the first time can be intimidating, but don’t let that put you off. Knowing what to expect before heading in will help to lower your anxiety.

Just so you are aware, there will be security employees present, similar to entering big box electronic stores or high fashion boutiques in malls. They are usually friendly and there to ensure everyone enjoys their shopping experience. In other words, they’re keeping an eye out for theft or rowdy customers.

The products will be behind glass cases under lock and key. This practice is required because there are strict laws that dispensaries must follow to keep their license.

Most dispensaries have a separate lobby area for checking in. You may have to wait in a waiting room and maybe fill out some paperwork as you wait for your turn.

To help you have a meaningful conversation about buying marijuana products, spend some time thinking about what you want to get out of a session with weed. Here are some questions to help you get started. From there, you can hash it out with the dispensary staff.

  • What effects am I looking for? Examples include a better night’s sleep, increased appetite, more energy, creative flow, or maybe even something to address inflammation, anxiety, or pain.
  • What forms am I most comfortable with? Edibles? Flower? Oils? Any that I am not?
  • Do I need any tools, storage supplies, or the like for my preferred products?

How do I know what kind of cannabis product is right for me?

Dispensary staff (budtenders, if you will) are pretty well-versed in potency and effectiveness and what particular products work best to address certain conditions.

A good rule of thumb is this: Start with cannabis products — flower, tinctures, edibles, or low-dose vape pens — with an equal THC to CBD ratio. These are the two main and most talked about compounds when it comes to marijuana. This can be a game-changer, especially since you’re new to cannabis. It delivers a more balanced and predictable experience.

These options will help you ease into the effects and give you more control over your experience.

What are some best practices for my first cannabis journey?

Now that you’ve got your product of choice, we’ll help you map out how it’s done.

First, start with a low dose and take it slow. You need to gauge your tolerance and comfort level. Trust that it’s better to dip your toes in the water instead of diving in headfirst.

Depending on factors like the strain, dosage, and environment, you might experience relaxation, heightened senses, a wonky perception of time, and a shift in your mood. Some folks even get the giggles and become super social. But just a heads up — there’s a chance you might feel anxious, paranoid, or uncomfortable, especially if you take larger doses or you’re in a new and unfamiliar setting.

Everyone’s experience is unique. So, take it at your own pace and always be aware of your feelings. There’s no need to rush this process.

The setting is important too. If you’re new to this, pick a place where you feel totally comfy and at ease. Whether it’s your home or a friend’s, the idea is to minimize anxiety or paranoia. Surround yourself with people you trust and activities that help you relax. Avoid crowded or unfamiliar places because those can amp up any uneasy feelings you might have.

The effects usually last a few hours, so keep hydrated and stock up on snacks. You definitely want to have munchies on hand; trust us on this one.

Remember, you’re in control of your first cannabis experience.

I love this stuff. Can I start growing it at home?

No. Not even if you are a medical marijuana cardholder.

Two state senators, Dan Laughlin (R-Erie) and Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) are trying to change that and have introduced the Medical Marijuana Home Cultivation Bill. The bill would allow medical marijuana patients to grow up to six plants for personal use. Unfortunately, the bill is stuck in the Law and Justice Committee.

Are there DUI laws related to marijuana?

Yes. Marijuana is still considered an illegal drug in Pennsylvania. So it’s illegal to drive with any amount of it in your system. Even medical marijuana patients can’t have it in their system. Not even a trace amount. Marijuana can stay in the system for weeks after smoking it.

Rep. Chris Rabb (D-Philadelphia) introduced HB 983 last year which would clarify that medical marijuana is not a controlled substance and allow medical marijuana patients to legally drive (although not while they are impaired). The bill was laid on the table in the House.

How do I get a job in a dispensary?

Dispensary jobs are advertised just like other jobs. A simple Google search of “dispensary jobs in Pennsylvania” will give you a large list of opportunities.

To work at a dispensary, you must be able to pass a background check. The PA Department of Health, which oversees the medical marijuana program, could deny employment if you’ve been convicted of a crime relating to the sale or possession of illegal drugs.

Once you get the job, you must complete a two-hour training course within 90 days of starting.

Anything else I should know?

Studies have long shown that marijuana can increase feelings of paranoia. Scientists have largely attributed those feelings to the way THC tends to overstimulate the human brain, which, in turn, can mess with our natural, fear-based responses — including anxiety and stress.

It’s important to know what to do if you’re not having the best time. We’ve all been there. Take a deep breath and try some of these tips:

  • Stay calm: Remember, the effects are temporary and will fade away. Relax and know that any unease, nervousness, or discomfort will pass.
  • Change things up: If you’re feeling anxious or paranoid, switch up your surroundings. Move to a different room or step outside if that makes you feel more at ease.
  • Stay hydrated and snack it up: Sip on some water and munch on some snacks. It can help take the edge off and keep you grounded.
  • Breathe deep, breathe calmly: Slow, deep breaths can work wonders for anxiety. Take a moment to practice deep breathing and let the good vibes flow.
  • Zen activities: Boost your mood by listening to relaxing tunes, watching a soothing movie, or an activity you know will chill you out.
  • Talk it out: If you’re with a trusted friend, spill the beans on how you feel. Sometimes, a good chat can make all the difference. Or, keep a notepad or journal handy — you’ll want to check out your real experience after the fact, too.
  • Bye-bye booze and caffeine: Alcohol and caffeine can give cannabis a turbo boost, which might amp up your experience. So, maybe skip them until you’re more comfortable using cannabis products.
  • Take a solo break: If you’re with a group and need a timeout, it’s totally cool to find a quiet space for yourself. Sometimes, a little me-time can make things better.
  • Nap it off: If it all feels overwhelming, catching some zzzs might help you wake up feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the world again.


  • Ashley Adams

    In her 16 years in the communications industry, Ashley Adams has worn many hats, including news reporter, public relations writer, marketing specialist, copy editor and technical writer. Ashley grew up in Berks County and has since returned to her roots to raise her three children.



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