State aide says 5 of 6 N.J. pot dispensaries have "secured locations"

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora doubted the state's support.
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora doubted the state's support.
Posted: March 23, 2013

TRENTON - Three years after New Jersey passed a law allowing patients with serious ailments to use medical marijuana, debate has erupted over whether the program is languishing.

On Thursday, hours after the Coalition for Medical Marijuana of NJ held a panel discussion in the Statehouse annex to criticize the state's handling of the program, the Department of Health issued unexpected news.

Donna Leusner, the department spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that five of the six nonprofit companies that have been preliminarily approved to open marijuana dispensaries have "secured locations."

Some critics were skeptical.

Only one dispensary has opened. The Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair, Essex County, opened in December and is struggling to supply all of the 880 patients who have registered statewide.

Two other nonprofits said before Thursday's announcement that they had located dispensary sites. Leusner would not name the two others that she said had now obtained locations.

She also said that a nonprofit that plans to open in Egg Harbor Township had received approval of its "financial structure," and "several key board members" had passed background checks.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer), a primary sponsor of the marijuana law and a panelist, expressed doubt.

"I would be very skeptical of anyone saying they're almost there. We've been told that for years," he said.

Gusciora said that he had spoken to a representative of one of the nonprofits and learned that it was still mired in extensive background checks. He declined to name it.

"To have only one dispensary off the ground is unacceptable," he said. Gusciora also questioned why Gov. Christie would not use his leadership skills to get the program moving. "He's dynamic. . . . He can make things happen," the legislator said.

One of the six preliminarily approved nonprofits tried to locate in Maple Shade, but its application was rejected by the township's zoning board amid public opposition.

Christie said then that he would not intervene in local decisions. His spokesman declined to comment on Thursday.

Assemblyman Declan J. O'Scanlon Jr. (R., Monmouth), an advocate of medical marijuana, said he believes most of the blame lies with "irrational opposition" to dispensaries on the local level.

"It's not the administration's fault it is moving at the pace it's moving," O'Scanlon said. He declined to participate in the panel discussion, he said, because he believed it would unfairly target the governor and the administration.

O'Scanlon also said it takes time to properly implement a program of this complexity.

"It's the most credible program in the country. Other states are emulating it," he said.

Panel members included a medical marijuana doctor, a cancer survivor, a marijuana patient with HIV, and the founder of the coalition.

Vanessa Waltz, a cancer survivor who is on the coalition's board, accused Christie of treating the issue as if there were no crisis.

"Patients with six months to live have to wait seven months to get marijuana" that will bring them relief, Waltz said. "They are in crisis," she said.

Joseph Jimenez, a Mercer County physician who has certified 20 patients to receive medical marijuana, said that in many cases they were able to cut their daily dose of prescribed strong pain medications in half.

"Marijuana is a safe alternative to these dangerous medications. . . . It's unacceptable some of my patients have to wait seven months, knowing that it will improve their health and quality of life," he said.

Jay Lassiter, a coalition member who organized the panel discussion, said he was optimistic that the Health Department's news may bring patients relief. "But there is still a quantum leap for us to get the access we need to medical marijuana," he said.


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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