The first of Pennsylvania's medical marijuana patients received their state registration cards last week, making them eligible to buy legal cannabis oils when the state's first dispensaries open in early 2018.

Theresa Nightingale, a marijuana activist in Pittsburgh, received her card two days before Christmas.

"It was the perfect gift," said Nightingale, a cancer survivor who was crowned Miss High Times in 2015. "It came exactly two weeks after seeing my doctor."

The state Department of Health mailed about 435 cards to doctor-certified patients "all in a batch" in the days preceding the holiday, said spokeswoman April Hutcheson. About 10,000 people have registered for the program. Approving each patient, however, has been a time-consuming process because each application has to be "double-checked by hand" against other state records, Hutcheson said.

Registering was easy,  Nightingale said. Though her own general practitioner and oncologist are not participating doctors, she scheduled a $200 appointment with a physician at a Compassionate Certification Center in Pittsburgh.

"The hardest part was finding all of my cancer documentation that I had saved over the years," she said. "I needed to prove that I had been diagnosed first. Then I brought in various bloodwork results, EKG and pulmonary function results to back up my claims."

About 250 physicians in Pennsylvania have been approved by the state to write recommendations for medical marijuana. Health professionals cannot write official prescriptions for the medicine because the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Food and Drug Administration consider all forms of cannabis to have "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." An alphabetized list of state Department of Health-approved doctors in the Philadelphia area can be found at philly.com/potdocs.

Seventeen "serious medical conditions" are eligible for treatment with medical marijuana products under the state's program. They include:

  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.
  • Autism.
  • Cancer.
  • Crohn's disease.
  • Damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity.
  • Epilepsy.
  • Glaucoma.
  • HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) / AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).
  • Huntington's disease.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease.
  • Intractable seizures.
  • Multiple sclerosis.
  • Neuropathies.
  • Parkinson's disease.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Severe chronic or intractable pain of neuropathic origin or severe chronic or intractable pain in which conventional therapeutic intervention and opiate therapy is contraindicated or ineffective.
  • Sickle cell anemia.