Some sick people frustrated for years by New Jersey officials who delayed the start of a legalized medical marijuana program are now bummed that the state's first licensed dispensary isn't open and hasn't said when it will be.
The Greenleaf Compassion Center received its license from the state last month, has a storefront in downtown Montclair and has marijuana growing at an undisclosed location.
But 61-year-old multiple sclerosis patient Lisa Segal, who lives in Wenonah and has a state-issued ID card allowing her to use medical cannabis, said Greenleaf is "the only obstacle now."
State Department of Health spokeswoman Donna Leusner said Tuesday that the state gave its final approval for Greenleaf to open Nov. 2 and it's up to the dispensary to explain its delays.
Greenleaf's president, Joseph Stevens, did not return a call or an email, and other members of the nonprofit group's board of directors did not respond to interview requests.
Patients have said they haven't heard from Greenleaf for several weeks, if at all, and Greenleaf's private Facebook group has disappeared. They say the lack of communication is becoming a problem.
"When you're waiting on the tarmac, it's a little comforting to hear from the captain about what's going on," said Jay Lassiter, a Cherry Hill political consultant and activist who has a card allowing him to use pot to treat symptoms of HIV.
Eighteen states have approved medicinal marijuana in some form. In New Jersey, it's been a particularly slow process.
It took activists years to persuade New Jersey lawmakers to allow medical marijuana. And when Gov. Jon Corzine finally did sign the law just before he left office in January 2010, it was considered to be the nation's most restrictive because it banned letting users grow their own pot and had a short list of qualifying medical conditions.
So far, 179 physicians have registered to be able to recommend marijuana to patients, and 318 patients have received cards from the state allowing them to use it. Nearly 140 more patients are applying. The state says about half the patients have economic hardships allowing them to pay $20 for the card rather than the regular $200.
Going from having a law to having a medical marijuana system also has been a slog. The state developed regulations more slowly than many patients hoped. Then five of the six nonprofit groups it chose to grow and sell pot had trouble getting local permission to operate their businesses.
Greenleaf was the one alternative treatment center that seemed to avoid real difficulties. It quickly secured places to operate and got permission from the state in April to start growing marijuana.
The group had a brief holdup in September over getting a certificate of occupancy from Montclair, but a zoning official there said it was a miscommunication that was quickly resolved.
Earlier this month, Stevens told Newark's The Star-Ledger that there was a delay because of the question of whether pot providers would be subject to state sales taxes.
The state health department said at the time that Greenleaf could open while that was sorted out and would not be penalized if it didn't collect taxes and the state later required them. On Tuesday, the state's Department of the Treasury ruled that medical marijuana would be subject to a 7 percent sales tax.
After hearing about that, Segal, the MS patient, also left a message with Greenleaf hoping to hear that the dispensary would soon be open so she can stop buying what she calls "the only thing that gives me relief" on the street and start getting it legally, even if it means a long drive from her home.
"I am on their list, and I have a card, and I'm just praying that this long, long wait will end," she said. "A four-hour drive would be better than risking arrest and prosecution."
Not all the anger over the delay is directed at Greenleaf.
Assemblyman Thomas Giblin, a Democrat from Montclair who briefly served on the dispensary's advisory board, said the group has worked its way through a lot of bureaucracy just to get to the cusp of opening.
"Anything that they're supposed to do, they've done," he said.
He said he believes the group should be ready to open soon.
Risa Sanders, a 54-year-old multiple sclerosis patient from Long Branch, is leaving soon to spend two months in Florida. She said she expects that she won't be able to buy cannabis legally in New Jersey before she leaves or immediately after she returns. She said the reason is not Greenleaf but the state.
"The problem is they have so many regulations in this state," she said. "They make the law so tight that it's just about non-workable."
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