High hopes for backers of medical marijuana

Jessica Perry//January 16, 2012

High hopes for backers of medical marijuana

Jessica Perry//January 16, 2012

Two years after New Jersey legalized medical marijuana, 2012 looks like it will be the year the state’s first dispensaries open, advocates say. But even with the end of a lengthy legalization battle in sight, supporters say plenty of issues still need to be resolved in order to make the program achieve its intended aims.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed the state’s medical marijuana bill into law in January 2010, leaving its implementation to his successor, Gov. Chris Christie, who has made progress toward implementation — selecting six nonprofits to open dispensaries, known as alternative treatment centers, and setting up the regulations to govern the centers. Last month, he hired former state police Lt. John O’Brien to head the program.

Still, Christie — who opposed the medical marijuana bill — aroused suspicion when he halted the implementation process for a month last summer, until he could gain assurances that the state’s dispensaries were not an enforcement priority for the federal Department of Justice, since marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Marianne Bays, who heads a group of businesses with interests in medical marijuana, said Christie’s regulatory scheme goes too far, and could hamper the program’s ability to help patients. A limit on the amount of THC — the compound that gives marijuana users a “high” — in medical marijuana, for instance, “means you can’t produce the variety of medicine that your patients might need,” she said. “You can’t produce medicinal-quality marijuana.”

The state also issued a requirement that physicians register with the state before they can prescribe the drug.

Some also have quibbles with the way the state chose the six nonprofits that will participate in the program. Garden State Medical Marijuana, a nonprofit that unsuccessfully applied, has sued the state, citing flaws in the selection process.

“Some of the successful bidders apparently don’t even have locations to grow in those areas,” said attorney Charles Gormally, who represents Garden State. “One of the strengths of our bid, we believe, is that it was a complete bid in which we disclosed specific locations in which we were going to do business.”

Gormally said the state misguidedly discounted his client’s application in part because it was one of two applicants in Secaucus, and the state did not want to consider two applicants in the same municipality, in order to ensure the ATCs were spread out geographically.

Another problem for the ATCs has been obtaining local approvals. Compassionate Care Foundation, one of the six program participants, has faced rejections from Westampton and Camden in recent weeks as it tries to find a site to grow its marijuana.

David Knowlton, the foundation’s board chairman, said groups like his face an “irrational” bias against marijuana.

“What’s frustrating to me is there would be no objection if I went in and said I’m going to build a factory, in the same building we’re talking about, to make oxycontin or amphetamine,” said Knowlton, a former deputy health commissioner for the state. “Nobody would object to it because it’s a pharmaceutical company.”

Knowlton said he could pursue the case in court, but the goal is to begin serving patients as soon as possible, so they will likely seek out other towns. He urged South Jersey mayors interested in a “good neighbor” to give him a call.

Paul Josephson, a partner at Hill Wallack LLP, said even though the state considers marijuana a legal prescription drug for certain patients, many communities regard the centers skeptically, though the Legislature could help fix the problem.

“The state could say these operations are either farming (in the case of growing marijuana) or pharmacy (in the case of dispensing it) operations, and therefore can be sited wherever local zoning allows for that,” he said.

But Donna Leusner, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Senior Services, said the state has no role in the local issues.

“Just as an example, when a hospital is applying to the state to open, the municipal approval process has to play out,” she said. “The state doesn’t attend meetings on behalf of hospitals that are seeking to open communities. It’s a community process.”

Not every ATC faces opposition. Greenleaf Compassion Center has received local approval to open an ATC in Montclair. Greenleaf is also the first to submit all of its paperwork to the state as it formally applies for a permit to open.

Leusner said the state is working to implement the program “as expeditiously as possible,” but she said it’s difficult to say when Greenleaf might receive a decision on its permit application, since the approval process includes a number of requirements, including a site inspection.

Josephson said he’s anxious to see the centers open, but the state’s tight regulations and cautious pace aren’t necessarily a bad thing, as “it’s better to have a well-defined process, and both investors and lenders are much happier participating in something that is a well-structured program,” he said.

Ken Wolski, who heads the Coalition for Medical Marijuana, said he expects at least one ATC to open this year, which would help dull opposition in other communities.

He’s telling patients to expect an ATC to open within four to six months. “I hope I’m not wrong,” he said.


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