Medical pot growers face a new hurdle

Some towns, including one in Burlco, oppose the farms. Only two of six state-approved groups have found sites.

Posted: November 26, 2011

TRENTON - It took years for advocates of medical marijuana to sell New Jersey lawmakers on the idea of allowing certain patients to legally use pot.

An even bigger task, some advocates are now finding, may be persuading towns to approve places for them to do business.

Eight months after being selected by the state, only two of six groups approved to grow and sell marijuana to qualifying patients have firm sites. Others have run into stiff local opposition, including in Burlington County.

Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana of New Jersey, watched residents of Upper Freehold rally Tuesday against a proposed legal pot farm in their town.

"It struck me," Wolski said, "as townsfolk with torches and pitchforks chasing them out of town."

The two groups that have announced zoning approvals are several months from opening to patients because they still need final permits from the state's Department of Health and Senior Services before they can plant their first crops, which would take about four months to grow.

And two that have had public hearings on their plans have met stiff objections from people who said the facility would hurt property values in the area, would send a message to young people that illegal drugs were acceptable, and could pose a security risk.

The Upper Freehold committee meeting provided a forum to discuss the issue, but there was no vote on the Breakwater Alternative Treatment Center's plan to put greenhouses on a farm in the central New Jersey town. The drug would be sold to customers elsewhere; the group has not disclosed the dispensary location.

A lawyer for Breakwater said the group would move ahead with its zoning board application, though township committee members said they would try to pass an ordinance that would bar the town from allowing anything contrary to federal law.

Therein lies one of the main difficulties with medical marijuana. Though 16 states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing it, pot remains illegal in the eyes of the federal government.

New Jersey's law, adopted in January 2010, is considered to be the nation's most stringent, limiting the drug to patients with certain conditions - including multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, and terminal cancer - and letting them have recommendations to use it only from doctors they have been seeing for at least a year. Advocates say the drug can help ease such conditions as nausea and pain.

The state government is still working on its regulations for the upstart industry. There have not been any legal marijuana sales in the state yet. The regulations are scheduled to be finalized Dec. 19.

Last month, the zoning board in Maple Shade, Burlington County, ruled that a combination growing facility and dispensary was not an appropriate use for a vacant building that once housed a furniture store.

Andrei Bogolubov, a spokesman for Compassionate Sciences Alternative Treatment Center, said the group would prefer to find a site in a community where zoning officials could rule that their facility was an allowed use - and sidestep a zoning board. But he also said that the group was aware, because of angry residents, that not everyone was informed about medical marijuana.

The group launched a new website this week with information about how medical marijuana would be used and how doctors and patients could begin enrolling in the program.

Bogolubov also said the group, if it were to get another public hearing, would be better prepared. In an attempt to counter opponents, it would try to line up patients to talk about how they would benefit from the drug.

An entrepreneur in Camden, who has not been approved to grow and sell pot, wants to help out a group that has. Ilan Zaken wants to lease two buildings he owns in Camden to an approved marijuana licensee.

Zaken, who owns the clothing retailer Dr. Denim and the hip-hop shirt company Miskeen Originals, has been trying to get city approval so a licensee could use the space, said Frank Fulbrook, a Camden community activist who is a consultant on the project.

Fulbrook said the enterprise, if approved, could bring dozens of jobs to one of the nation's most impoverished cities.

Fulbrook said the buildings Zaken was targeting were a few blocks from the Campbell Soup Co. headquarters. Neither is the former Sears store that Zaken owns and says he wants to preserve over the objections of Campbell officials, who want it razed.

"If we get the zoning approval, we would have exactly what the tenants need but don't have," Fulbrook said. "That would put us in a strong bargaining position."

The matter is expected to be before Camden's zoning board Dec. 5.

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