What if Pennsylvania had a medical marijuana program but few people knew about it?

With hundreds of millions of dollars invested in cannabis-growing facilities and dispensaries — and the health of thousands of prospective patients on the line — alerting state residents to the program should be a priority. But there's effectively a gag order on nearly all players involved.

The state Department of Health, responsible for the program's rollout, has no budget to pay for advertising. Marijuana growers, processors, and dispensaries are prohibited by law from actively promoting their wares. And doctors who write recommendations for medical cannabis are forbidden from publicizing that they are participating.

So reaching prospective patients requires some artful threading of the needle. The program is expected to launch early next year. According to the state, about 6,600 people have applied since Nov. 1 to participate in the program, and 107 doctors have been approved to recommend marijuana products. Those numbers aren't nearly enough to sustain an industry.

To encourage participation, some of the stakeholders are taking matters into their own hands. One of Pennsylvania's 12 licensed growers is funding its own education campaign. And several doctors have posted  videos explaining what is required of patients.

"They can educate, but the regulations say they cannot advertise," said April Hutcheson, spokeswoman for the state Health Department.

Cresco Yeltrah won a permit to cultivate cannabis north of Pittsburgh and is set to open three dispensaries in Western Pennsylvania. The Chicago-based company, the first to open a growhouse in the state, is on track to supply dispensaries across the commonwealth with marijuana oils, pills, creams and tinctures by early February, according to a spokesman.

On Friday, Cresco launched a carefully worded social-media campaign to promote the program. In an 85-second spot posted to YouTube, an animated character explains the five steps that patients need to take to get a medical marijuana card. The video, approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, contains no overt promotion of the Cresco brand.

Charlie Bachtell, CEO of parent company Cresco Labs, calls it a "homegrown effort" to supplement the information the state has posted on its own website.

"There's a groundswell of interest and effort by people who are involved, and that interest has been pent up," said Bachtell, whose company also is using discreet messaging on billboards on major commuter routes. "We're all vested to make sure this program is a success that we're willing to do things that traditional industries don't usually do."

Cresco also opened an online help desk to guide patients through the process.

Dana Mincer is one of 107 physicians approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Health to recommend medical marijuana. She launched a series of videos on YouTube that explain what patients need to know about the program.
Dana Mincer via YouTube
Dana Mincer is one of 107 physicians approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Health to recommend medical marijuana. She launched a series of videos on YouTube that explain what patients need to know about the program.

Dana Mincer, a resident in her last year at Lower Bucks Hospital in Bristol Township, is one of 107 doctors the state has approved to write medical marijuana recommendations. Mincer self-produced three videos about the Pennsylvania program "because I'm really passionate about this as an alternative therapy."

"There are so many misconceptions about it, and the entire population needs to be educated," she said. "I'm doing this because it needs to be done, to get people healthy, and for many of those people to get them off narcotics." One of Mincer's videos takes patients through the 17 medical conditions that qualify.

Mincer said she has no interest in dispensing the drug or profiting from the nascent industry. "My only interest is getting patients better," she said.

The Health Department's Hutcheson emphasized that all the information a patient might need is on the state's website.

"We're making sure it's all accurate and presented so it's easy to understand," Hutcheson said. "After visiting the site, the next step is to have a conversation with your doctor to see if medical marijuana is something that will work for you."