Compassionate Care Foundation filed a motion Monday for a stay of the permitting process that would bring MPX New Jersey, another alternative treatment center, a quarter-mile up the road in Atlantic City.
CCF applied for a stay of the process last year, too, after filing an objection appeal against the state which it contends “ignored a clear statutory mandate” and “flip-flopped on a prior standard it previously argued was ‘integral’ to the success of the medical marijuana program” – geographic diversity – by permitting MPX to locate their dispensary at 118 St. James Place in Atlantic City.
The New Jersey Department of Health’s decisions don’t explain why it would neglect to follow a statutory mandate or divert from prior policy, CCF contends.
The January 2019 stay was denied on the grounds that it would take a while for MPX to get up and running, so the issues could be worked out before it opens. At the time, the court told CCF to once again seek a stay if “circumstances change or advance to the point where the imminence of irreparable injury is presented.”
CCF reapplied for the stay Monday because circumstances have changed: The Botanist by CCF is open, the opening of MPX’s dispensary is imminent, and CCF’s case against the state still has not been heard.
“It’s not the fault of the dispensary, it’s the fault of the state. The State of New Jersey didn’t follow their own rules,” CCF Chair of the Board Dave Knowlton said.
Per the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, the DOH is statutorily obligated to “ensure the availability of a sufficient number of alternative treatment centers throughout the state.” The DOH has previously applied a geographic diversity standard that ensured medical cannabis dispensaries not overlap significantly in service areas to secure both better patient access and less of a travel burden. In the 2011 ATC application process, the department issued a decision to deny second-place overall applicant Garden State Dispensary, which proposed a Secaucus location, the same city as first-place overall applicant Harmony Foundation
MPX’s planned Atlantic City dispensary is only 0.3 miles from CCF’s location.
“In fairness to the department, they’ve been really good. They’re doing this so fast, they’re trying to get it up and running, there’s so much involved, and they’re trying to get it done. And you make mistakes when you speed up,” Knowlton said. “But nonetheless, the principle of access is worth fighting about in my mind.”
To remedy the issue, Knowlton suggested the DOH grant MPX permission to open its dispensary in a non-duplicative area, like Gloucester, Salem or Cape May counties, which don’t yet have dispensaries.
CCF General Manager Cady Riley told NJBIZ on Feb. 24, that just under 10 percent of CCF’s patient population lives in Atlantic City; and that some travel two hours to its Egg Harbor Township location to get their medicine.
Moving MPX’s dispensary elsewhere would not be catastrophic to its business, Knowlton said, and having it nearby wouldn’t be catastrophic to CCF either. But it would hurt patients who don’t get closer access to an ATC.
“The department estimates we need 50 dispensaries in New Jersey to meet demand. We have eight now, and they need 50. It’s not a competitive issue. It’s an access issue. It’s not catastrophic from a business standpoint. It’s just duplicative. Why should we spend time dealing with that when patients need access? They can be in the same area, just not right on top of each other,” Knowlton said.
The New Jersey medical cannabis patient population is currently at 70,201, according to the DOH. Since The Botanist by CCF opened Feb. 22, Knowlton said it’s been busy, in part because of the press that surrounded the opening.
“The demand is incredible. The pressure on the department is significant to expand access and address demand. Since Murphy came in as governor, look at the increase we’ve had in patients in that time. It exploded. You’re going to see that explosion again,” Knowlton said. “Like what happened with the opening of our dispensary in Atlantic City, you’re going to see increasing demand. There was a lot of press around it, and when people see it, they say, ‘maybe that can help me.’”
Knowlton believes that in granting MPX New Jersey a permit to open so close to another dispensary, the DOH “just made a mistake, they didn’t tell the evaluators about the [geographic] diversity standard and they made a mistake.”
Assistant Commissioner of the Department of Health Medicinal Marijuana Program Jeff Brown declined to comment on pending litigation.