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Marijuana Proponents Hold Their Breath on Medical Pot and Legalization

After years of bureaucratic delays, the first medical marijuana dispensary could open its doors in the Garden State within a month.

Julio Valentin Jr., left, Greenleaf's chief operating officer, and Joseph Stevens, the chief executive officer, standing in the center's waiting room.

As New Jerseyans wait to learn whether the state Senate will follow its peers in the Assembly to pass a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, the first medical marijuana dispensary within New Jersey's borders may be little more than a month away from opening. More than two years after former Gov. Jon Corzine signed the bill legalizing medical pot, the Greenleaf Compassion Center is preparing to open in Montclair in early September and is already growing the maximum three strains of grass in preparation for opening day.

“Being a funeral director for 15 years, I would hear from families whose loved one had been dying over time and used marijuana for relief. But they all felt like criminals,” said Joe Stevens, Greenleaf’s president and CEO. “It gave their loved one quality of life at the end rather than being on morphine, which would put them in a drug-induced coma, unable to have dinner with the family or talk with their loved ones.”

After years of bureaucratic delays that compelled pro-pot Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Trenton) to call for legislative hearings with Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, Greenleaf is the first of six non-profit organizations to receive permission from the Department of Health to begin growing marijuana to sell at its dispensary. Once Stevens finalizes his security systems, ensures his employees pass mandatory drug tests and background checks, and completes construction on his retail facility, which will have an atmosphere he likens to a comfortable medical clinic, he’ll be ready to invite in the state for final licensing.

Despite this, Stevens fears he’ll be missing one critical component when he opens his doors: customers.

Behind Schedule

The department is two years behind schedule to take its online patient registry live, and though it’s registered 140 physicians so far, a department spokesperson says it will be another month before debilitatingly sick patients can begin to obtain clearance through a process that requires them to procure an official recommendation from a participating doctor, then apply for an ID card and pay the two-year registration fee -- $200 each for patients plus $200 more for their registered caregivers, or $20 per person for those who prove financial hardship. The ongoing delays trouble the program’s advocates.

“The patients are very disappointed,” said Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a national lobbying organization dedicated to reforming drug policy. “They worked for years to get this passed so they would have legal access and still they’re continuing to put themselves at risk by going to the black market.”

An Uncertain Future

Stevens says the Compassionate Care Medicinal Marijuana Program (MMP) -- which faced an uncertain future when Gov. Christie took office and considered canceling it before it began -- finally picked up momentum in November when the health department hired a director to oversee it. Director John O’Brien, a retired state police lieutenant, explained the challenges facing his nascent program this way in an email: “The Department built a brand-new program from the ground up and the long-term success of this program depends on carefully taking our first steps and seriously considering the complex issues that are involved. Secure systems are needed to grow, package, test, inspect, transport, dispense, and dispose of a substance that is considered a Schedule 1 drug under federal law.”

While O’Brien and his staff attend to lingering details, five additional state-approved alternative treatment centers (ATC’s) lag behind Greenleaf: Compassionate Care Foundation Inc. has secured a location in Egg Harbor Township but the other four, which will be spread evenly throughout the northern, central, and southern parts of the state, have encountered tough resistance from communities formally and informally approached for siting. Upper Freehold Township denied approval to one applicant then, as an added measure, passed an ordinance prohibiting facilities that violate federal law. (Although medicinal marijuana is illegal at the national level, President Obama has directed the Justice Department not to prosecute reputable dispensaries.) Zoning boards in Maple Shade and Camden denied applications from other ATC’s and Mt. Laurel’s municipal council tabled a vote in June to study the issue. As municipalities weigh the costs and benefits of housing what some consider a stigmatized business, the state’s populace has weighed in on medical marijuana, and the scales tip heavily in its favor. Several newspapers have positively editorialized about MMP and a Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics poll conducted last November found that 86 percent of respondents support these types of programs.

Part of the public’s backing may stem from the fact that New Jersey’s program -- the 19th in the U.S. -- is considered the strictest in the country. Background checks for operators are the same as those for entrepreneurs seeking a gaming license: they take approximately four months and delve into more than 25 years’ worth of legal records, bank statements, tax returns, and personal and professional relationships. When it comes to patients, New Jersey maintains a narrow list of qualifying diseases and unlike many states does not certify patients claiming chronic pain or anxiety as the basis for their need. Patients must maintain an ongoing relationship with their recommending doctor; they can’t smoke on-premise or buy the drug baked into food or smell or otherwise use their senses to evaluate the products; and they can select from only three strains of pot at each dispensary, with none containing a THC level higher than ten percent.

The DPA considers this a “moderate” strength that’s lower than the average 12 percent to 15 percent allowed elsewhere.

“Why the arbitrary cap?” wonders Scotti. “If it doesn’t work at that level people will go to the black market. And it won’t stop anyone from getting a higher level of THC from smoking more, thus causing them to use more, which will cost them more money, and they could more quickly reach their monthly limit of two ounces.”

Stevens says in trying to imbue his program with as much legitimacy as possible, he’s structuring his clinic to provide an experience that will in some ways -- but not others -- resemble a visit to the doctor.

“First you swipe your card to get in and show two forms of ID to the security guard,” he said. “You inform the receptionist you’re there and wait in the lobby while you fill out paperwork. When it’s your turn, you’ll get called to the back, passing through two locked doors, where you’ll reach the dispensing area.” Once in the dispensing room, patients and their caregivers -- the only members of the public allowed to enter the facilities other than doctors – consult with an attendant to discuss the efficacy of their treatment plan and then receive pre-filled prescription bottles to take home.

Street Value

Stevens is looking to the MMP for input on whether to charge street value or less for patients’ “prescriptions.” The health department has chosen to let operators set their own price structures and will not tax the drug, though so far it’s collected $178,000 in application fees from the ATC’s, which will slightly offset the $784,000 it has budgeted for the program for fiscal 2013. Part of the program’s expenditures went toward funding the comprehensive, first-in-the-nation ATC vetting process and toward, as O’Brien puts it, “Developing protocols for the department’s lab to test for cannabinoid levels and for the presence of mold, mildew, pests, pesticides and heavy metals.”

Perhaps if the project runs smoothly for the next few months, a bill to decriminalize recreational possession of limited quantities of pot that was introduced into the Senate by the lawmaker who drafted the MMP bill several years ago will have a better chance of advancing. The decriminalization bill, sponsored by Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden), would change the laws to impose a $50 civil penalty for possessing 50 grams or less, an amount that’s equivalent to an ounce and a half, or, according to the DPA, roughly the weight of 15 sugar packets, of pot. After its introduction in May, the bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee but didn’t receive a hearing. Scutari, who chairs that committee, says he’ll wait until fall to determine whether he’ll schedule one. “Right now we’re focusing on getting the medicinal marijuana bill implemented,” said the senator, “and the governor has said he’ll veto it if it passes and I’m not big on wasting my time.”

He is, however, surprised and encouraged that a similar, though more conservative, bill passed the Assembly relatively easily in late June. The bill that would reclassify possession of 15 grams or less (equivalent to half an ounce or three-to-four sugar packets) as a civil infraction -- punishable by a maximum $150 fine and no criminal record -- and possession of 15 to 50 grams as a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail passed by a vote of 44-31-2 after receiving unanimous approval from that body’s judiciary committee. Currently, possession of less than 50 grams of cannabis is a disorderly persons offense that carries a possible fine of $1,000 and up to six months in jail; possession of more than 50 grams is a felony with punishment not to exceed a $25,000 fine and 18 months of incarceration.

“You wouldn’t have seen that level of support in the Assembly if they weren’t hearing from their constituents,” said Scotti, who recalls 28 individuals and organizations who testified before the committee in favor of the bill as compared with one who spoke against it. Indeed, according to the Rutgers-Eagleton poll from November, 58 percent of New Jerseyans support the relaxation of penalties for marijuana use; more than half think possession should not be a punishable offense, and one-third would legalize it completely.

Assembly sponsor Gusciora, despite hoping the Senate bill garners support, says he’d prefer his colleagues amend it to more closely resemble the Assembly version, with the intention of attempting to reduce penalties for possession of greater quantities sometime in the future.

“I think there are many people who would like to open it up to 50 grams,” he said. “[But] I don’t think the governor or the public are ready for that. I think the 15 grams is more realistic.”

According to NORML, eight states define the private, non-medical possession of marijuana by adults as a civil, non-criminal offense; five consider it a misdemeanor penalized with a fine; and one state, Alaska, doesn’t classify it as a legal infraction at all.

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