6abc's Wendy Saltzman tours a medical marijuana grow facility

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6abc's Wendy Saltzman tours a medical marijuana grow facility, as seen on Action News at 11 p.m., October 16, 2017

In about three months, patients in Pennsylvania are expected to have their first legal access to medical marijuana.

As regulators move to get the program off the ground, their plans have garnered as much criticism as they have praise.

Cresco-Yelrath was awarded one grow and three dispensary licenses in Pennsylvania; the company runs a discrete grow facility on the outskirts of Chicago.

Cresco's CEO Charles Bachtell, and Cultivation Manager Jason Nelson took Action News on a tour inside their Chicago plant to show us what we can expect at their facility in western Pennsylvania and at 11 other grow facilities currently licensed across the state.

The marijuana goes through the entire growing cycle, gets harvested, and medical grade cannabis products are produced inside the facility.

The plants are closely tracked and registered with the state, from the time they are a few inches tall to the time the end product reaches the store.

"It's very sensitive. I mean it's akin to transporting cash or other highly sensitive materials," Nelson said.

Forty different unique strains of marijuana are cultivated at the facility. Each one goes through a rigorous third party testing process, to ensure quality and potency, with products targeting a specific set of medical conditions.

In Pennsylvania, 17 different medical conditions could qualify a patient to purchase marijuana - from MS to ALS, cancer, HIV and chronic pain.

But critics, like DEA Special Agent in Charge Gary Tuggle, question the medical value of this schedule 1 drug.

"It's a slippery slope; it's dangerous," Tuggle said.

The Food and Drug Administration currently says there is no legitimate medical purpose for marijuana. But advocates counter that's only because there have been limits on their ability to study it, because the DEA has categorized cannabis as an illegal drug, akin to heroin or LSD.

"Do I see the level of heroin use increasing as a result of the legalization of marijuana? Yeah, ultimately I would because there are statistics that say that folks that abuse marijuana chronically are more likely to use heroin or other drugs," Tuggle said.

But Bachtell says medicinal marijuana could prove to be a less lethal alternative to the some of the more prescribed, and potentially more dangerous, opioids for pain.

"What those studies are actually showing is that there's a reduction in opioid abuse in states that have medical cannabis programs," Bachtell said.

Cresco expects to produce 10,000 pounds of medicinal marijuana annually out of their Jefferson County facility once it's fully operational. The first products will hit shelves by February.

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