"It's frustrating. I don't know why it's being stalled, to be honest with you," said Michael Weisser, the operator of the Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge, Middlesex County, noting health officials observed a demonstration of his manufacturing process in early May.
Nearly a year ago, Gov. Christie reluctantly agreed to sign a bill lifting a ban on edibles after the father of a severely sick child pleaded with him, saying his 2-year-old daughter needed cannabis to ease potentially deadly seizures. Then, when the state Department of Health learned in February that desperate parents were making their own marijuana concoctions for their children, the agency suggested they be patient, because regulated, safer edibles were expected to be sold by the dispensaries soon.
"The department is working expeditiously with the ATCs [dispensaries] to develop a safe product to avoid the hazards of home-manufactured products," spokeswoman Donna Leusner said at the time.
Weisser said the extraction machine at his dispensary works and production can begin as soon as it is approved.
Bill Thomas, the operator of a dispensary just outside Atlantic City, submitted plans in February that called for him to lease a Pennsauken facility and equipment that would produce cannabis capsules and lotions. He had hoped to begin selling them this summer. But now, he is abandoning the idea, saying there are too few patients and too many restrictions to make it worthwhile. "The program is so restrictive that it's almost nonexistent," he said.
Since the Compassionate Care Foundation dispensary opened seven months ago in Egg Harbor Township, only 600 patients have registered with it, including only 250 repeat clients, he said. The dispensary had anticipated 5,000 patients upon opening.
Thomas said he had hoped the Health Department would consider changing rules that he says have kept the patient enrollment artificially low. Statewide, only about 2,200 patients have signed up. They are discouraged, he said, by a cumbersome registration process, the lack of sufficient doctors in the program, and the cost - about $400 an ounce - which he said could be reduced if there were more patients.
But he said the department has spurned recommendations that a coalition of dispensary operators made several months ago to get the limping program moving along.
Leusner would not specifically address the comments made by the dispensary operators. When asked about the lack of approvals for the edibles, she wrote in an e-mail: "The Department is evaluating manufacturing protocols to ensure safety." In response to the changes the dispensary operators want, she said: "If the Department proposes amendments or new rules, they would be submitted for publication in the NJ State Register and subject to public comment."
State Sen. Jim Whelan (D., Atlantic), one of the original cosponsors of the medical-marijuana law, sent a letter to Health Commissioner Mary O'Dowd last week after hearing from Thomas.
"We have regulations that are hampering the success of the program. . . . It has been shown to provide relief for people who are suffering so let's get rid of those regulations," he said.
Whelan also said he was told that doctors were hesitant to enroll in the program because there was a perceived stigma to appearing on a published list of medical-marijuana doctors.
Ken Wolski, executive director of Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey Inc., said the state's program was failing.
"We have almost nine million people in the state and only a couple thousand in the whole program after four years?" he said. "It's really such a shame people are finding it so difficult to get involved in the program."
The marijuana, he said, is being denied to people who are very sick and need it to address severe pain.
Wolski, a nurse who has long lobbied for changes in the program, blamed Christie for refusing to address the problems.
Lack of interest
Christie's spokesman did not respond to a request for comment last week. But last month, a spokesman said in an e-mail: "The governor has signaled his willingness to make changes to the program if there is a demonstrable need." At several town-hall meetings, however, Christie has said he does not want to expand the program because he believes it will lead to recreational use of marijuana.
Weisser, who heads the coalition of dispensary owners, said he also asked the Health Department to allow deliveries to hospices and nursing homes. The response, he said, was that medical directors at these facilities have not shown interest in these deliveries.
But Weisser said the lack of interest was tied to the fact that the directors want a smoke-free environment and edibles have not yet been approved. "The lack of approval is seriously hampering everything," he said.
Thomas said he was so discouraged that he now is telling the other dispensary operators that have not yet opened to reconsider opening. "It costs $100,000 a year just to comply with the regulations. I have the equivalent of two full-time people just working on compliance," he said.
Currently, Thomas operates the only dispensary open in South Jersey. A second dispensary that was expected to open months ago in Bellmawr, Camden County, is still undergoing state background checks of its principals and investors. Andrei Bogolubov, a spokesman for that dispensary, said the state investigators were looking "at every financial transaction" for investors who have complicated financial dealings. Leusner said the department was waiting for "additional documentation" from the investors before it can grant approval.
Thomas said that getting the Egg Harbor dispensary open was a long, tedious process, and that now he has doubts about whether it can succeed. "We put our first seeds into the dirt a year ago on Friday," he said. "Nobody predicted we would have so few patients when we first opened. . . . It was all sort of wishful thinking going on."