Medical marijuana could be growing in Egg Harbor Township as soon as Aug. 1, as a nonprofit group renovates what will be one of the first two legal dispensaries in the state.
A New Jersey law permitting the distribution of marijuana to patients with qualifying conditions such as multiple sclerosis and terminal cancer was signed more than two years ago, but the process of certifying vendors and siting facilities has been an arduous one.
“There’s a stigma attached to this issue that some people can’t see around,” said William Thomas, president of Compassionate Care Foundation Inc., which is currently renovating a former Trump Entertainment warehouse in the Offshore Commercial Park off Delilah Road.
The 85,000-square-foot facility will house more than 16,000 plants once it’s fully operation, with room to expand as demand increases. The plants will be processed on site into a variety of products — including lozenges and lotions — for patients who have been pre-approved by the state Department of Health. Thomas estimates that about 50,000 people statewide currently use marijuana illegally for conditions the dispensary will cover.
The dispensary will open this December after a three-month cultivation period, he said. A second dispensary, to be operated by Greenleaf Compassion Center, is planned for Montclair, Essex County.
Marijuana’s complex legal status — state law now contradicts federal law — has also made it difficult for legitimate vendors to secure funding for their projects. The Egg Harbor Township project’s $1.2 million set-up costs had to be raised privately. Because marijuana is technically illegal, insurance companies won’t cover prescriptions. And while the foundation still needs to pay its taxes each year, Thomas said the non-profit can’t deduct operating costs.
“If I were a pharmaceutical company, I could write off research, development, equipment, salaries, year-end bonuses and even cars, but I can’t write off anything under IRS rules because what I’m doing is technically illegal,” he said.
Based on state rules, Thomas said, the dispensary will sell its products in quarter-ounce increments, with the prices tentatively set at $300 per ounce. Patients the state classified as low-income will receive the drug free of charge, he said.
“Of that $300 an ounce, $115 goes to the federal government,” he said. “If the government treated it differently, I could drop the price for people.”
After being shut out of sites in Burlington and Camden counties, Thomas said the foundation was on the verge of giving up when its “guardian angel,” real estate developer Leo Schoffer, came forward with the vacant warehouse that was already zoned for agricultural commercial use.
“Without him, we would’ve given up on this,” Thomas said. “Schoffer had done the legwork before we came here; he just reached into his pocket and bought the property for us.”
“This is not, as some people call it, a ‘pot farm,’” Schoffer said. “This is a pharmaceutical industry and it’s going to provide a service and provide jobs. In the long run I think other towns will say, ‘Why didn’t we jump on the bandwagon?’”
And Schoffer isn’t the only prominent Atlantic County leader to embrace the burgeoning medical marijuana industry.
“It’s something people should be genuinely enthusiastic about,” said County Executive Dennis Levinson, who also supports decriminalization.
“The longest war this country has ever fought is the war on drugs and it doesn’t look like we’re making much headway,” he said. “We should look at a sane plan rather than institutionalization and the costs of all that.”
Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough said the dispensary met all of the township’s zoning criteria, will be located in a sparsely populated section of the township, and its operators have been very accommodating, even offering to set up a live stream of security cameras to the police department.
Finally, he said, the dispensary will boost an economically stressed part of the county, dotted with empty office parks and warehouses.
“I’m hoping the pharmaceutical industry looks at our area and says this is a good place to locate,” he said. “We could certainly use another industry in Egg Harbor Township and in this county.”
Schoffer said the foundation will be renovating the former warehouse over the next two months to make it safe and suitable for patients before the arrival of the first batch of seedless cannabis plants from Spain.
The plants themselves were genetically altered to decrease Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that causes marijuana’s psychotropic effects, and increase Cannabidiol, or CBD, the component that relieves anxiety, nausea and pain.
“It produces a very different buzz from Oxycontin,” a popular prescription pain reliever, Thomas said. “You get all of the good effects without the bad liver and the addictive qualites. And you can still function on it.”
They’ll be grown in smaller grow rooms on the main warehouse floor, where the climate and light can be individually controlled. Once the plants are ready, Thomas said, they’ll be blended together to ensure a consistent product. Only the leaves will be used, with the rest of the plant being destroyed after the milling process is complete.
“It’s a pharmaceutical product, not a farmstand,” he said.
Patients must first obtain a prescription from a state-designated doctor. The dispensary, which cannot advertize, will then be notified of a new potential patient. The potential patient will then receive a phone call from the dispensary.
If the patient chooses to visit the dispensary, their identity will be confirmed before they see a nurse in one of the consulting rooms. There, they will discuss their treatment and the transaction will take place. The dispensary itself is accessible only to a nurse with a key card. The products are stored in a refrigerated safe secured with a biometric identification system.
“The nurse has to put her thumb into it and the safe dispenses the drugs like an ATM,” Thomas said. “It also prints out a label for their package.”
Thomas said the facility will feature a state-of-the-art registration and security system with facial-recognition software to screen patients. Two guards and two hypoallergenic German shepherds — to avoid contaminating the plants with dander — will patrol the facility each night. They cost $50,000 a piece.
Similarly, he said, the estimated 50 employees will need to complete a four-month long process that includes a 71-page screening application and a thorough background check, the same process he went through as president.
"I could get a casino license because I've been vetted so long — if I had to do over again, I would have," he joked. "This is the cleanest operation you could find."
A 65-year-old health economist who has worked on several New Jersey projects, including privatizing the state’s prison health system, Thomas decided to work on medical marijuana in his retirement.
“I don’t have any kids put through college, so I can afford to go to jail for 20 years,” he said.
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