Shore township cool with medical-pot center

Posted: April 02, 2012

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Down a back street off Delilah Road, near the Fed Ex shipping center, not far from the local airport, Leo Schoffer will show you the building.

A former Trump casino warehouse, it's overgrown and deserted. But Schoffer sees its future clearly: a lushly landscaped, peaceful, welcoming place where people in need can fill prescriptions for medical marijuana.

Which will be grown there.

"So people can come up and feel good," said Schoffer, 59, who is buying the site for use by the Compassionate Care Foundation, one of six license-holders under the state's Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act. "I never liked when I took my mother for chemotherapy treatments."

In the two years since New Jersey adopted its medical marijuana law and licensed six nonprofits to provide care, municipalities throughout the state - including Westampton, Upper Freehold, and Camden - have rejected applications for so-called Alternative Treatment Centers. Gov. Christie said he would not force any municipality to take a facility.

Only Montclair, a liberal boomer enclave that Christie taunted would become "the medical marijuana capital of New Jersey," and Egg Harbor Township have given the OK.

Egg Harbor Township? How did the sprawling casino bedroom town seven miles from Atlantic City known mostly for its foreclosure crisis and vacant housing developments, become one of only two towns to accept a marijuana facility?

The answer involves Schoffer, a child of Holocaust survivors; Sonny McCullogh, the well-known 70-year-old Republican mayor of the township whose only experience with pot, in the '70s, gave him hallucinations; and local State Sen. Jim Whelan, a sponsor of the law, whose wife is a disabled former Paralympics equestrian.

There was really never any township opposition. Schoffer, a major commercial real estate developer, offered to buy the building and got zoning approvals.

"He's our angel," said William J. Thomas, 64, CEO of the Compassionate Care Foundation, which was on its way to filing suit against Westampton, Burlington County, for its rejection when his broker, Merch Realty in Camden County, suggested Schoffer.

They are now awaiting final state approval and elaborate background checks. If all goes well, they'll acquire seeds from the Netherlands this spring, start growing in June, and begin dispensing cannabis in lotion, flake, and lozenge form (by prescription only, to be picked up by patients or their designated caregivers) in the fall.

"The man helped us," Thomas said. "He bought a building for us. He's loved in the community. He knows everybody."

Schoffer's last turn in the news was for giving a half-million dollars to Richard Stockton College to name its Holocaust Resource Center after his parents, Sam and Sara Schoffer. The Schoffers, from Vilna, Poland, escaped the ghetto, married in the forests, and made their way to America in 1949. They settled in Egg Harbor Township, and, like many immigrants there, ran chicken farms.

Leo Schoffer has deep feelings for the place.

"I have to tell you, being born in EHT, I think it's been traditionally a Republican town, it's very open-minded of them," he said. "Egg Harbor Township gave all of the immigrants opportunities. It was a welcoming town for business people. Not one person called with a complaint. People call looking for a job or asking when we'll be up and running.

"People say to me, 'Why am I doing this? What do I need this for?' This will help people. We have an economy that needs to expand. People make jokes, they say, 'Are you hiring testers?' "

Maybe not testers, but Thomas says the Compassionate Care Foundation intends to hire 50 people from the community, focusing on veterans, the disabled, and those on the autism spectrum. He has reached out to local charities like Gilda's Club and pledged surplus revenue. He's met with local doctors. In May, he will speak to the Rotary Club.

"We have been welcomed by the town," Thomas said. "They didn't seek us out, but we're going to be spending money in the community, $10 million in salaries. There will be provider-relations people, nurses, clinicians, pharmacy tech people, horticulturalists, people growing and cultivating plants, people processing the products, maintenance, and security."

Thomas said the facility, which will do all growing indoors and have 24-hour security, will focus on research as well. Trained as a health economist, he hopes to show employers that medical marijuana is a much less expensive treatment to include in employees' insurance plans than, say, OxyContin.

McCullough, mayor of a town that has doubled in size in the last decade as casino workers moved in, then suffered through the recession, said he saw no reason to oppose the facility.

"If I wanted to stop it, it would be more of a political thing," he said. "There's nothing they're doing that would be in violation of our zoning. If you think about it, this is low-dose cannabis. When you leave there, there's no seeds to plant in your backyard and share with your neighbors."

He said he had had very little negative feedback. "My town is truly middle-class America. We care about our people. I got some people saying, 'I'm never going to vote for you again.' All right. So what? I had people tell me that when I wouldn't put a street lamp in front of their house."

The police, he said, were supportive and said there would be more chance of someone breaking into the Super CVS on Route 9 than this facility.

"I would love it if the pharmaceutical industry looked at Egg Harbor Township to locate here," McCullough said. "Maybe someday all of us might need something. I don't know why people make a big deal about it."

Whelan (D., Atlantic County) said he was still disappointed at how long it had taken to implement the law.

"I congratulate Mayor McCullough," he said. "A lot of towns have been running away from this. I don't know why. They kind of embraced it."

Whelan, whose wife, Kathy, has progressive nerve damage and who suffered muscle loss from chemotherapy and radiation treatments for Hodgkin's disease when she was 17, had written in the local paper about the case of John Wilson, jailed for growing marijuana he used to treat his multiple sclerosis. Christie publicly questioned Wilson's diagnosis, prompting his doctor to write in his defense.

Because the law requires the license-holders to be nonprofits, Thomas said he had to find six people to lend him a total of $700,000 for the renovations. Banks won't lend money for something the federal government regards as illegal, and, as a nonprofit, he can't have investors. Schoffer is also considering lending money. The foundation will pay $15,000 a month in rent for two years, then up to $30,000.

Ken Wolski of the New Jersey Coalition for Medical Marijuana said Egg Harbor Township's approach to the zoning request was a model, "a much more reasonable approach to it, rather than the hysteria in these zoning board meetings."

The township will take the jobs - and any controversy. It has seen worse.

"We tried many towns, talked to many mayors," Thomas said. "While they were sympathetic, they did not think we would get approval. I thought the people in Atlantic and Cape May County may have a different view. They were accepting of the casino business. We're going to take whatever profits we make, we'll put it in the community.

He added, with a laugh: "I don't know how they'd feel about us sponsoring a Little League team."


Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-823-0453, arosenberg@phillynews.com, or follow @amysrosenberg on Twitter.

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