EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - William Thomas may be on the cusp of selling medicinal marijuana in Egg Harbor Township, but the CEO of the Compassionate Care Foundation said this week that the overall future of New Jersey's program is dim.
"I think the program is going to collapse," Thomas said this week. "I think we're dead unless they change the requirements."
Stringent state requirements mean the company will serve about 1,500 customers, Thomas said, a fraction of what he said was the need.
"It doesn't work," Thomas said of the state medicinal marijuana program. "Right now it doesn't work because of the design of the program."
Thomas, a 66-year-old Newtown, Pa. resident, estimated about 500,000 potential medicinal marijuana users live in the state, including 250,000 cancer patients, 140,000 epileptics, and 70,000 people with multiple sclerosis. These include children, and Thomas said he would sell medicinal marijuana for children who qualify.
"Sure," he said. "It's under the law."
The state Department of Health says approximately 1,000 patients are registered with the state program, designed to assist people with terminal illnesses or any one of several debilitating diseases.
Compassionate Care Foundation expects to open the state's second medicinal marijuana clinic in late September at its facility in the Offshore Commercial Park office and storage park. The first, Greenleaf Compassionate Center, opened in December in Montclair, Essex County. It briefly closed this month to build up supplies, after staff said it had been overwhelmed by demand.
Thomas's firm, one of six authorized by the state, found a home in Egg Harbor Township after repeatedly losing sites in Camden and Burlington counties to local opposition.
In Egg Harbor Township, Thomas said local residents and officials have been helpful and supportive. Mayor James "Sonny" McCullough has praised the facility, but Thomas said delays have hurt both the foundation and program.
Ex-Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed the law into effect in January 2010, but under Gov. Chris Christie the state was been slow to implement it. Thomas said early investors promised $15 million, but the funding fell through as the state equivocated on regulations.
Banks also risk losing their federal charter if they lend to marijuana distributors, Thomas said, so he said the company privately borrowed about $1.5 million at an effective 25 percent rate.
"There is no way to raise money," he said.
The company is legally able to provide marijuana as a lotion or lozenge, but he said this would require a $1 million facility. Consequently, he said the foundation will initially sell only smokable marijuana.
Thomas said the company has a pending request with the state Economic Development Agency for a $650,000 grant. If successful, Thomas said, he would be able to triple production, as well as buy backup generators to save the crop in case of a power outage. The agency did not respond to a request for comment.
Conflicting state and federal laws have also had a "devastating" impact on the business, Thomas said.
State law requires the company be organized and operated as a nonprofit. But because marijuana growing and distribution is federally illegal, the federal Internal Revenue Service has refused to recognize the foundation's non-profit status.
Consequently, the foundation expects to pay the 35 percent federal corporate income tax, and potential donors are unable to deduct donations from their taxes.
Thomas and the company have persevered despite troubles, however, and he now oversees the future clinic's transformation from a former Trump casinos warehouse. Only the lurid purple and maroon carpet remains in the future dispensary once used by accountants. "This is casino carpeting," Thomas explained.
The building received its certificate of occupancy in mid-July, Thomas said, after adding new exit signs, emergency lighting and making other changes to meet current building codes.
When it opens, three strains of the product would be sold to qualified patients at $65 for an eighth of an ounce or $100 for a quarter of an ounce, Thomas said.
These prices are significantly higher than the drug's average street price in New Jersey, according to priceofweed.com, a website that seeks to crowdsource global marijuana prices.
Nearby, a door opens into a cavernous warehouse. Under Trump, 40-foot high shelving units filled the space with all kinds of casino doo-dads. Those are all gone.
Instead, a black-vinyl-tarp-shrouded, 120-foot by 30-foot rectangle covers about one-fifth of the floor. Water pipes and high-wattage cables lead in, and the fringes are faintly illuminated purple by high-powered lights.
This is the growing room.
Thomas held back a corner of the tarp.
Inside, the plants sat in 1,500 pots, neatly lined up on 45 tables. Thomas said the staff spent five days and a cumulative 120 hours last week transferring seedlings and using almost four pallet-sized bags of potting soil.
Once the plants are established, Thomas said, they will be grown in an environment that maintains 72 degrees and 50 percent humidity, supersaturated with almost quadruple the normal carbon dioxide level to encourage growth.
Technicians then will be able to enter only in hooded suits to keep the plants germ-free.
After growing 60 days, Thomas said, this group of plants will be dried another two weeks and then packaged into about 15,000 one-eighth-ounce jars. Any leftovers and trash is closely regulated, Thomas said, and would be destroyed.
All of this is protected by an elaborate security system that includes on- and off-site security and video cameras that Thomas and other staff can remotely accesses with their iPads. Staff includes about a dozen guards, Thomas said. Some are current or former police officers.
While he talked, three employees worked with the growing plants. Thomas asked they not be identified, out of fear that somehow one could be coerced into violating state medicinal marijuana laws.
"That's my greatest fear," Thomas said.
Regardless of the problems, Compassionate Care is preparing to open in about two months. And for patients, it will open none too soon.
Mary Humphrey, who has multiple sclerosis, lives in Wildwood Crest. The 54-year-old registered with the state program after her doctor suggested medical marijuana. She said she hoped to avoid daily injections: "That's not fun."
Humphrey said she tried the other clinic, in Montclair, Essex County, but it turned her away. Now she's hoping to find help much closer.
"We're willing to drive the two and a half hours. But if it helps, it's worth it," Humphrey said. "And Egg Harbor Township is only going to be about 45 minutes away."
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