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Wall Street Journal
Marijuana Sales Delayed: New Jersey Prescription Program Beset by Local Opposition, Security Challenges
Heather Haddon
February 27, 2012
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 Services officials.

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 hundreds.

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 security.

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." 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 Upper Freehold.

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 heather.haddon@wsj.com

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