Medical marijuana elusive for those in need in S. Jersey

Janice Rael will drive Laura Tips, who has MS, to the dispensary when medical marijuana becomes available, but for now, "my heart goes out to her."
Janice Rael will drive Laura Tips, who has MS, to the dispensary when medical marijuana becomes available, but for now, "my heart goes out to her." (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 01, 2013

Laura Tips is not one to give up.

The former Gloucester County librarian spent four months crossing off items on a lengthy checklist so she could qualify for New Jersey's tightly regulated medical-marijuana program.

Tips, who uses a wheelchair because she has debilitating multiple sclerosis, says she hopes the drug will live up to its reputation as being able to tackle pain, which sometimes reduces her to tears and forces her to "just lay down" until it subsides.

But last week, soon after the Clayton woman received word that she was approved, a friend told her that the state's sole dispensary had decided not to take on any new patients from South Jersey.

Janice Rael, her friend and caregiver, had read in published reports that Greenleaf Compassion Center's owners were overwhelmed by the demand of having to serve nearly 900 registered patients statewide.

"My reaction? Shock, frustration," said Tips, 49. "I don't know what happens next."

Unless Greenleaf has a change of heart, it appears patients from this area must now wait for the expected opening of a dispensary in Egg Harbor Township in Atlantic County in September. Its targeted launch date was pushed back at least twice last year.

Greenleaf, in Montclair, about 20 miles from Brooklyn, N.Y., was one of six nonprofits preliminarily approved two years ago to operate dispensaries. Of these, two were designated for each geographic area of the state: north, central, and south.

Greenleaf's owners said that when they opened in December, they had not anticipated being the only one up and running, according to the Newark Star-Ledger.

They did not return calls for comment.

"I had to jump through hoops" to qualify for the marijuana program, Tips said, describing a series of doctor visits, government applications that resembled "a term paper," and arrangements to get Rael fingerprinted to serve as a caregiver. She was told her final step would be to wait for a call from a dispensary to set up an appointment to make her purchase.

James Ross of Pine Hill said he was in the same situation. When the patient registry opened in August, he said, he decided against signing up immediately because he didn't want to pay the $200 fee before any dispensary was running.

Now, Ross, also an MS sufferer, has a medical-marijuana patient card, "but no access to any medicine," he said.

Officials at the state health department have asked Greenleaf's owners to continue to serve registered patients "across the state in the order in which they registered," said Donna Leusner, spokeswoman. The department also "requested that Greenleaf sell all of the product it is producing."

Still, the "availability of medicinal marijuana and the pace of Greenleaf's operation is based on its business capabilities and its independent business decisions," she said.

In South Jersey, the two nonprofits that were selected to open dispensaries encountered problems finding a location after municipal boards refused to grant them approvals. Residents packed meetings and said, among other objections, that they feared the dispensaries would bring increased crime.

After losing a zoning battle in Westampton, Compassionate Care Foundation finally was approved last year to open in a leased building in Egg Harbor Township, outside Atlantic City.

Chief executive William J. Thomas said he now expects to be in business in the fall. After securing its building, the nonprofit had waited more than a year for the state to complete background checks of its board of directors.

"All we need to do now is to prepare our facility for inspection to start growing. We hope that we will be ready to be inspected in 60 days," Thomas said.

The other South Jersey nonprofit, Compassionate Sciences Inc., is still looking for a site. A Maple Shade board rejected its application two years ago, and it has been unable to find an approved location. "We are making significant progress" was all that spokesman Andrei Bogolubov would say.

Tips said that she hopes the Egg Harbor dispensary will open on time.

A month ago, her doctor weaned her off Percocet, a drug containing oxycodone, in anticipation that Tips would soon be using marijuana. The narcotic causes Tips intestinal and bowel problems, she said, and she looks forward to using marijuana because she has learned it may help her appetite as well as her pain.

"My heart goes out to her," said Rael, who drives Tips to doctor appointments and who will drive her to the dispensary. "This has been a grueling process. And now she quit her Percocet and is in even worse pain than she's ever been in."

Tips relies on over-the-counter medications to help her get by. "The hardest part was having to give up my pain-pill relief," she said.

Still, she has decided not to resume taking the narcotic and is optimistic that she will one day have access to marijuana. "If it's going to come out good in the long run, then it's good," she said.


Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz,"

at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.

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