New Jersey residents eager to begin treatment at the state’s second medicinal marijuana dispensary may have to wait even longer as regulators scrutinize the Egg Harbor Township facility’s business plan.
“It’s disappointing to say the least,” said Wildwood Crest resident Mary Humphrey, who has been approved for the state program. “We are going to make the trip to Montclair if we have to.”
Patients such as Humphrey, whose doctor prescribed cannabis to relieve symptoms of multiple sclerosis, remain in limbo.
Nearly three years after a bill was signed into law allowing six medicinal marijuana dispensaries in New Jersey, only one — in Essex County — has opened. And Humphrey, 54, said there are as many as 350 people ahead of her on the waiting list for treatment she would have to drive more than two hours to receive.
“Right now I have pain over my eye from optic neuritis ... and I have a lot of anxiety and depression,” she said. “I’m hoping it will help with that.”
Originally set to open its doors in a vacant warehouse last month, the Egg Harbor Township facility’s debut has been delayed as regulators asked it to rework its financing.
“The state is reviewing it right now,” said Bill Thomas, president of Compassionate Care Foundation Inc. “As soon as we have approval from them, we’ll be back in, finish our construction and start growing.”
Thomas said he hopes to begin growing by mid-February to open by May 1, but the arduous regulatory process means those plans are still tentative.
State Department of Health spokeswoman Donna Leusner said the foundation submitted amended documents regarding its business structure Dec. 26 and Jan. 7. She referred other questions about the review process to the department’s website.
Paul Riportella, whose wife, Diane, was an outspoken medical marijuana advocate, said the long process is failing people who need the medication. Diane Riportella died in September at age 56 after being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2007. The Egg Harbor Township resident used marijuana to alleviate the degenerative disease’s symptoms and testified to its effectiveness before the state Legislature.
“I understand paperwork has to be filed — dot the i’s and cross the t’s — but they should try to expedite this,” Paul Riportella said.
With no legal mechanism to obtain medical marijuana, Riportella said he — as many caregivers like him do — took great risks to ease his wife’s pain. Even though he had a trusted source, the danger was always there.
“You always have to look over your shoulder,” he said. “I could not get caught — I had to be at the house to take care of my wife — but I did what I had to do in order to obtain the medication.”
Roseanne Scotti, director of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance, said the opening of the state’s first dispensary last month was encouraging, but the process is still far too slow. One dispensary cannot be expected to fill the needs of an entire state, she added.
“Imagine if there were only six pharmacies in New Jersey,” she said. “Or, as it is now, just one pharmacy.”
Scotti, whose organization has been involved in the push for medical marijuana since 2005, said some of the problems are inherent to the legislation. Others arise from its implementation.
The program was severely limited before it passed the state Assembly, she said. Bill revisions limited the number of qualifying medical conditions and the amount of marijuana that could be distributed.
“They took away a lot of the discretion from the doctors,” she said.
Scotti said the law prohibits approved patients from growing their own plants for home use.
“Other states have allowed patients and caregivers to grow small amounts of marijuana,” she said. “It’s an economically beneficial provision for them (since) they can do it much less expensively.”
In Egg Harbor Township, prices were tentatively set at $300 per ounce, $115 of which would go to the federal government despite marijuana’s illegal status. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, an ounce typically sells illegally for between $100 and $300 on the street in New Jersey.
That same shaky legal status has also posed a problem for the proposed dispensaries. Thomas said recent delays were related to a state mandate that the first six dispensaries all be not-for-profit enterprises despite the impossibility of the enterprises qualifying for nonprofit status through the Internal Revenue Service.
“It’s very difficult to get any kind of financing for something that’s not-for-profit that’s not really a charity,” he said. “We’ve been treated like a no-man’s land.”
Thomas said the initial business plan included a kind of profit-sharing — in lieu of the tax deductions traditional nonprofits rely on when securing funders — that the state objected to. The revised plan removes that provision, he said, but increases the interest rate for lenders from 8 percent to 18 percent.
Of the initial eight lenders, only four remain for the second round of investment. Each has had to undergo an intensive background check by the state similar to that of prospective employees, he said.
Thomas said the foundation had been renting its warehouse — in an industrial park off Delilah Road — for several months without actually operating from it. In October, he said, the landlord canceled the lease pending state approvals.
“This is probably the hardest permit to get in the state,” he said. “The state has to be very careful how they proceed with this because it’s federally illegal — no one wants to get arrested.”
Despite the setbacks, Thomas said, he’s hopeful the review is being expedited in time for the May opening.
It’s an optimism echoed by Scotti, who said progress has accelerated since Gov. Chris Christie installed a new leader, 26-year State Police veteran John O’Brien, to head the medical marijuana program.
“The (dispensaries) have made much more progress in the last six months than we made in all the time previous,” she said.
But Scotti does hope that more can be done to ease the process and get more people the treatment they’ve qualified for.
“Patients are so excited to finally have safe and legal access to medical marijuana, where they don’t have to worry about being arrested,” she said. “There’s no reason other patients should be denied that experience.”
Humphrey, who will be using medical marijuana for the first time, said she hopes her number will come up soon. She’s called the Montclair dispensary, but they couldn’t give her an estimate for how long it will take.
“I don’t know how far they are with the list; they couldn’t tell me,” she said.
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