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NJ's Medical Marijuana Law May be Delayed

Christie administration asks key legislators for more time—from six to 12 months—citing the many 'logistics' in implementing the law.

The Christie administration is seeking to delay the July implementation of the law legalizing the use of marijuana for severely ill patients.

The measure, termed the most restrictive in the nation, was approved by the New Jersey Legislature in January 2010 and scheduled to take effect six months later. Regulations were to be in place by October, when six state-regulated pharmacy-type dispensaries would start selling to qualified patients.

But on May 21, senior staff in the Governor’s office suggested that the timetable be delayed for six to 12 months, said the bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Nicolas Scutari (D-Union).

"There are logistics involved in getting this done right," said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie.

Scutari said he asked for more information from the administration but was not inclined to grant the full wish. Changing the timetable would require legislators to pass a bill.

I said, ‘Send me a memo on what your issues are, and I’ll consider it, but I’m not going to give you that much time.’ It’s been in effect since January,” Scutari said.

Donna Leusner, spokeswoman for the N.J. Department of Health and Services, said only that formulating a business model for the sale of medical marijuana was a highly complex task that has taken the department into “pioneering territory." She said the agency has a Q&A on the basics of the subject.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Princeton Borough), a cosponsor, said he met with state health officials in April, when they were still in the "fact-finding phase." He said there had been no decision on how, or where, New Jersey will get its first seeds or rootstock.

"Do we say to dispensaries, ‘Get it where you can?’ Would the federal government, which has a federal farm for marijuana, mail it to us? Would state troopers have to escort it?” he asked. “They’re grappling with this.”

New Jersey’s Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana law was passed after years of lobbying by patient advocacy groups and others who pointed out that the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine had recognized marijuana was beneficial in treating or alleviating pain and other symptoms associated with certain debilitating medical conditions. Former Gov. Jon Corzine signed it into law on his last day in office.

The purpose of the law is to protect qualified patients, their physicians and primary caregivers, and licensed marijuana producers from arrest. Federal law prohibits all use of marijuana as a “controlled dangerous substance” like heroin and LSD.

New Jersey was the 14th state in the country, and one of the few on the East Coast, to legalize medical marijuana. The new law will allow people diagnosed with cancer, AIDS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis to buy the drug at licensed “alternative treatment centers.” They are prohibited from growing marijuana, however. Patient advocates have said 5,000 New Jerseyans are expected to apply.

The law established strict provisions under which patients would be entitled to a card establishing their legal right to buy, and entrepreneurs would be cleared to grow or sell the substance. Its implementation requires that the health department formulate many rules, from how to qualify patients to how to price marijuana. The agency must also approve the strain to be sold, for it is responsible for guaranteeing its quality and safety. State-approved patients may buy only two ounces a month.

While the state figures out the rules, interest from potential growers and sellers is mounting, according to Scutari.

“It’s all across the board, from celebrities to farmers to people just interested in new business opportunities,” he said. “There are dozens and dozens who call me. I seem to be the only one creating business here in New Jersey.”

Mary Jo Patterson is a freelance writer based in West Orange.

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