N. J. patients hopeful the last hurdle has been cleared for medical marijuana

Jim Ross, 31, of Pine Hill, has relapsing bouts of MS. He said he was upset that so many issues had slowed the launch of the program.
Jim Ross, 31, of Pine Hill, has relapsing bouts of MS. He said he was upset that so many issues had slowed the launch of the program. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff)
Posted: November 29, 2012

New Jersey health officials were upbeat on the day they announced that they were creating a long-awaited patient registry allowing seriously ill people to receive medical marijuana.

Within a couple of weeks, they predicted, eligible patients would be able to buy marijuana from the state's first dispensary, Greenleaf Compassion Center.

That was more than three months ago.

Patients say they have encountered mostly silence since then as they have waited anxiously for the call saying the nonprofit dispensary in Montclair, Essex County, is open for business.

While medical marijuana became legal in New Jersey in January 2010, the program has been set back by a series of delays, leaving patients on an emotional roller-coaster. The most recent delay was caused by confusion over whether marijuana sales should be taxed. After at least two weeks of discussions among various state officials, the Treasury Department decided Tuesday that the drug will be subject to the state's 7 percent sales tax.

For many patients, the last 90 days of waiting have been especially trying. They paid their $200 registration fee in August; their photo IDs arrived the next month by FedEx; and then, silence.

When they called the Health Department and Greenleaf, they couldn't get a clear answer on when the drug would be available, patients said.

State officials told them to await a call from Greenleaf with an appointment date; Greenleaf told them the state was still testing the marijuana plants and it did not know when it could dispense the drug.

Meanwhile, Greenleaf's website went blank, with visitors told only that it was "Temporarily Down for Maintenance." Its Facebook page also was stripped of the hundreds of postings and exchanges among patients who had eagerly shared their stories and concerns.

Also gone were the Facebook updates posted by Greenleaf's CEO, Joe Stevens.

"The story keeps changing," said Sandra Hacker, a Holland Township, Hunterdon County, resident. "I'm now having serious doubts. I'm in a quandary, at a loss for words. I suffer every day with multiple sclerosis and I am thoroughly disgusted."

About a third of the states, though not Pennsylvania, have active or developing medical-marijuana programs. Though all use of the drug is illegal under federal law, the Justice Department says it won't prosecute in those states when the drug is restricted to the sick. Among the drug's benefits are that it helps reduce pain and nausea, advocates say.

Besides Greenleaf, five other dispensaries are planned in New Jersey.

So far, 318 patients have enrolled in the state's program. An additional 138 are still getting their doctors to certify their eligibility or have not yet paid the fee.

"What's the point of getting the card right now?" said Jim Ross of Pine Hill. The MS patient says he hasn't registered yet because he doesn't want to pay the fee until the program is up and running.

"These cards are active right now and are only good for two years. It's frustrating," he said. Health officials said patients won't be credited for lost months.

Last month, Health Commissioner Mary O'Dowd said she expected Greenleaf to be open by the end of the year. The local permitting process and a state review of the facility that took weeks had just ended.

But then there was a delay when the state required Greenleaf to submit its plants for testing for fungus, pesticides, and potency.

The Christie administration wanted THC, the euphoria-producing ingredient in the drug, to be reduced to 10 percent to prevent abuse.

O'Dowd said in an interview then that the testing should not take "too long."

The testing took three to four weeks, according to dates provided by Health Department spokeswoman Donna Leusner. She said final clearance was granted earlier this month and officials were "waiting for Greenleaf to advise us of their opening date."

Greenleaf hasn't returned calls or e-mails.

A Newark Star-Ledger report two weeks ago said Stevens was still waiting to hear whether marijuana sales would be taxable. It said the Health Department was consulting the Treasury Department.

State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union), a prime sponsor of the medical marijuana law, said last week that the legislators had intended for the marijuana to be taxed, though the law didn't mention any tax. For a product to escape a sales tax, he said, "there has to be exemption" noted in the law.

"When you buy a cold or flu remedy at Walgreens, there's a tax," he said. "Years down the line, it could end up bringing a significant amount into the state."

Ross, an electrician who has relapsing bouts of MS, said he was upset that yet another issue had slowed the launch of the program.

"If they're going to tax it, that's fine. It's a move forward, less of a stall," he said Tuesday after the state agencies had resolved the tax issue. "But then the question in my mind is, if there's something else that might stall it. But my hopes are very positive."

Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, Burlco Buzz, at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.

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