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NJ’s Medicinal Marijuana Program Finally Moving Forward

Three years after Gov. Corzine signed the Compassionate Care Act, dispensaries now open in each of three regions

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In January 2010, then-Gov. Jon Corzine signed the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, making New Jersey the 19th state to legalize marijuana for medicinal use.

It wasn’t until this past December, however, that qualified patients could actually get prescribed pot on a consistent basis, thanks to administrative delays on the state level, supply issues and local zoning challenges. But three of six approved Alternative Treatment Centers (ATCs) have opened or reopened, and Trenton lawmakers have added some flexibility to the program, so medicinal-marijuana advocates are hopeful that the the program will now run smoothly.

What is it?

The so-called “Compassionate Care Act” permits certain New Jersey residents with certain chronic ailments to register for the Medicinal Marijuana Program (MMP), which allows them to legally possess and ingest limited quantities of marijuana.

But in part because New Jersey has the nation’s strictest medicinal-marijuana regulations, and in part because Gov. Chris Christie has not been supportive of the law and very rigid about its implementation, only 1,500 residents had registered as of mid-November.

Lengthy timeline

  • January 2010 – Gov. Corzine signs Compassionate Care Act
  • March 2011 – State approves all six ATC licenses allowed under law
  • November 2011 – Retired State Police lieutenant John O’Brien hired to run MMP
  • April 2012 – MPP physician registration opens
  • August 2012 – MPP patient and caregiver registration opens
  • December 2012 - Greenleaf Compassion Center ATC opens in Montclair
  • September 2013 – Appellate Court hears arguments that Christie Administration intentionally stalled implementation of the program and failed to file required reports
  • October 2013 – Greenleaf Compassion Center reopens after seven-week closure to build up marijuana supply after facing severe shortages
  • October 2013 - Compassionate Care Foundation ATC opens in Egg Harbor Township
  • December 2013 - Garden State Dispensary ATC (formerly Compassionate Care Centers of America Foundation, Inc.) opens in Woodbridge

How do patients qualify?

New Jersey residents must first establish a “bona fide” relationship, over the course of one year or four visits, with a doctor who’s registered with MMP; the doctor must certify that the patient suffers from a state-approved “debilitating” illness such as multiple sclerosis, terminal cancer, muscular dystrophy, Crohn’s disease or glaucoma, or that the patient has less than 12 months to live or does not respond to traditional medicine for ailments like severe epilepsy.

The doctor then recommends the patient to the official health department registry, which costs $200 for two years, or $20 for patients on public assistance. Once the patient gets accepted to the registry, he or she can obtain a 30-, 60- or 90-day certification to buy a prescribed quantity of marijuana, not to exceed 2 ounces in 30 days.

Within that period, the patient can take his or her registration card and prescription to the pre-designated ATC to buy pot in 1/8th -or ¼-ounce amounts. At the end of each certification period, the patient must return to the doctor for another evaluation.

If the patient can’t travel, he or she may appoint a caregiver -- who must also register for the program – to pick up the drug in proxy. A long list of guidelines for patients and caregivers includes restrictions against driving or operating heavy machinery, smoking marijuana in a moving car, partaking on a public beach or park, or taking the pot across state lines.

How do doctors qualify?

As of late last year, 248 doctors had enrolled in the program, representing approximately 1 percent of New Jersey physicians.

Rutherford gynecologist Dr. Anthony Anzalone is one of those doctors – and he’s reconfigured his practice to to specialize in medical marijuana prescriptions, renaming his practice New Jersey Medical Marijuana Doctors.

Interested doctors must hold a New Jersey medical license in good standing and practice medicine in the state, and they must possess an active state-issued controlled dangerous substances registration.

What rules govern the ATCs?

The state granted a total of six ATC licenses, with three opening so far. ATCs must grow their own marijuana, with THC potencies not to exceed 10 percent. Until recently, ATCs were limited to growing three approved strains of marijuana and could only distribute the drug in a form that could be smoked. A new law has expanded the number of strains that any one ATC can grow, and they may now sell pot to sick children in edible forms like cookies.

Although patients can choose to “join” any ATC, they can only patronize one ATC at a time.

What does it take to run an ATC?

Principal ATC officers and board members undergo an approval process by the state Office of the Attorney General that is as rigorous as the screening process for casino operators. In a process that takes about four months, state officials delve into 25 years’ worth of legal records, bank statements, tax returns, and personal and professional relationships. Every ATC employee goes through fingerprinting and criminal background checks. State inspectors have to sign off on the facilities and the product before the ATC can open.

Marijuana and kids

Although Gov. Christie remains skeptical of legalized marijuana, he has shown some leeway on expanding the program to help extremely ill childrent. After dallying almost three months, last September he signed a law that gives kids – but not adults – access to edible forms of pot, which at least one ATC is starting to grow. To do this, and to let growers cultivate child-friendly strains high in palliative effects but low in euphoric ones, he removed the cap on the number of strains each ATC can grow and sell.

However, he disappointed advocates and some parents by conditionally vetoing a provision that would have let kids register for MMP under the same conditions as adults. Instead, he, and ultimately the Legislature, kept a requirement that forces kids to get a written referral from both a pediatrician and a psychiatrist before seeing an MMP-registered physician.

More legislation, more debate

Fresh off their relative success in getting child-friendly provisions passed, lawmakers introduced a bill to let registered patients obtain legal medical marijuana out-of-state and allow t nonresident patients to buy and smoke medicinal pot in New Jersey. Under this reciprocity proposal, residents would only be allowed to import pot from states that allow it and out-of-staters could only partake here if they’re sanctioned by their home state.

Sponsors say they want to help families whose kids suffer while they wait for growers to perfect the edible and less-potent pot they need. One ne family has just announced that they find themselves with no option but to move to Colorado, where the strain their child needs is available.

The state Assembly has passed the bill but the state Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee, which received it in mid-December, has yet to hold a hearing. Gov. Christie, for his part, has pledged not to sign it.

"I am done expanding the medical marijuana program. Under any circumstances," he’s said. "Here's what the advocates want. … They want legalization of marijuana in New Jersey. It will not happen on my watch. Ever."

The latest

Despite the governor’s indication that he will tolerate no more marijuana legislation, on January 9, 2014, lawmakers sent another item to his desk. The latest bill would ensure that a patient legally using medical marijuana could not get turned down for an organ transplant on that basis alone.

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