Wall Street Journal - February 27, 2012
TRENTON - Marijuana for medicinal purposes won't be available in
New Jersey until the end of the year at the earliest, officials
predicted to The Wall Street Journal, nearly three years after
the state legalized the substance for the severely ill.
New Jersey - one of 16 states plus Washington, D.C., that allow
medical marijuana - has taken longer than expected to launch its
program because opposition to dispensaries in towns and villages
was more vigorous than anticipated, and setting up a highly
regulated system with safeguards against theft and fraud has
proved challenging, said state Department of Health and Senior
The officials said they didn't want to make the same mistakes as
Colorado and California, where recreational users have found ways
to buy marijuana through the state system.
"It's a frustrating program in many ways," said Mary O'Dowd,
commissioner of the Department of Health and Senior Services.
"We're talking about building a whole new program, from the
ground up, for an illegal product."
Now, after years of slow progress, Ms. O'Dowd said the program is
finally picking up steam.
The first dispensary to open is expected to be the Greenleaf
Compassion Center in Montclair, but it is still awaiting approval
from the state. Meanwhile, a dispensary in Egg Harbor was given
approval recently at the local level and is also awaiting state
approval. Four others are looking for sites and are "moving
along," said John O'Brien Jr., the new director of the state's
Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana program.
Next month, the state intends to announce a registry of
physicians who can prescribe pot to those with a "debilitating
medical condition," including HIV, cancer and multiple sclerosis,
officials said. About 100 physicians have expressed interest.
Officials said the number of potential patients is in the
Still, the delays in a program signed into law back in January
2010 have made patients anxious. Joseph Stevens, president of the
Greenleaf Compassion Center, said his agency gets up to 30 calls
a day from those seeking marijuana to alleviate their symptoms.
Medical marijuana is used by those suffering from chronic
illnesses to soothe symptoms pain and loss of appetite. Until
marijuana sales are legalized, Marta Portuguez, a 50-year-old
Roselle Park resident who suffers from fibromyalgia and
gastroparesis, said she is relying for marijuana on a friend who
obtains it illegally. "You don't know what it is to suffer the
way we suffer," Ms. Portuguez said. About the drug still being
unavailable to patients, she said: "It's just wrong."
Ms. O'Dowd said she "empathizes" with that sentiment but said she
doesn't want to rush the program forward and risk compromising
Under the New Jersey law, patients would be allowed two ounces of
marijuana a month. The price for a dose hasn't been set, but
patients in the program would pay $200 for an identification card
that must be renewed every two years. Medical insurance doesn't
cover the drug.
Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, was initially opposed after
taking office in 2010 and added restrictions, such as limiting
the strength of the marijuana. But Mr. Christie has since said he
supports moving forward and appointed Mr. O'Brien, a former New
Jersey State Police chief, to lead the program's implementation.
Mr. O'Brien said the program would account for pot production and
distribution down to the tenth of a gram by measuring what is
harvested and disposed of - from seeds to stems.
"It has to be well-monitored so it doesn't become the Wild, Wild
West," said Mr. O'Brien in his first interview since his
appointment in November.
Mr. O'Brien, a 26-year State Police veteran who oversaw FBI and
state criminal record systems, said he is at peace with his
transition from policing to enabling people to buy the illegal
substance. He has learned marijuana lingo like "mother plant" and
"cuttings" and knows several people personally who will benefit
from the program.
"Sometimes it's frustrating," he said. "But I genuinely feel as
though I'm doing something worthwhile for the people of the
State medical marijuana programs have expanded steadily
nationwide since a California referendum passed in 1996. That
trend slowed in 2011, when the Obama administration took a harder
line on state-sanctioned pot-growing, saying its policy of not
going after users didn't apply to large commercial enterprises
distributing the drug. Federal law prohibits the possession and
sale of marijuana.
Washington and Rhode Island have since backed off from efforts to
allow dispensaries to open there. A spokeswoman for the
Department of Justice didn't respond to a request for comment on
New Jersey's program.
Last July, after the federal government's decree, Mr. Christie
said he wanted the program "to happen as soon as possible," and
the six nonprofit dispensaries were instructed to open by
January, according to Mr. Stevens. But then the state encountered
a new problem - towns that didn't want the dispensaries. Centers
must get local approval for their dispensary and growing
facilities, which can be housed separately.
Upper Freehold, a rural township in Monmouth County, rejected the
Breakwater Alternative Treatment Center's attempt to build a
pot-growing facility. It passed an ordinance banning township
permits to future applicants distributing a federally banned
substance, as have at least two other municipalities.
"We're saying not in our town," said LoriSue Mount, mayor of
Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon, a Republican champion of the law,
said the centers have had to lobby for local support. "The folks
that embrace these facilities will be lauded as forward-thinking
heroes," he said.
The program is operating on a budget of less than $200,000 and
has required the coordination of a litany of state bureaucracies,
including the health, agriculture and banking departments along
with the Attorney General's office, Ms. O'Dowd said. Ensuring the
dispensaries don't become criminal enterprises has been a focus.
Each employee, officer, director and owner of a center must pass
background checks. Once open, the dispensaries would be subject
to random monitoring, Mr. O'Brien said. State police will dispose
of waste products from the growing process, as with drugs taken
off the street.
Write to Heather Haddon at firstname.lastname@example.org