South Jersey’s first medical marijuana facility began accepting patients in an isolated industrial park near the Atlantic County landfill in Egg Harbor Township on Oct. 28.

It’s been a booming first six months. Compassionate Care Foundation’s CEO, Bill Thomas, said it is looking to build a second indoor growing facility at its secure site, significantly increasing the volume of marijuana it can produce.

Thomas spoke in the center’s lobby, near a small memorial to Diane Riportella, an Egg Harbor Township woman who traveled to Trenton regularly to lobby state lawmakers for medical marijuana while she was dying of Lou Gehrig's Disease.

Riportella was 56 when she succumbed to complications from the painful, debilitating condition in August 2012. It already had been more than 2½ years since Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed the bill limiting marijuana access to patients suffering from similar medical problems, and regulatory delays meant another 13 months lapsed before Compassionate Care opened its doors.

Thomas pointed to her photo. “If it weren’t for her, we wouldn’t be able to help people.”

Nearby sat one of the center’s patients, Karen Taylor. The 48-year-old Monroe Township, Gloucester County, woman said she sought out the center in December to treat chronic pain and seizures.

These started 10 years ago, she said, costing her a career owning and operating a day care center. She first considered marijuana after seeing a program where a woman used it to treat migraine headaches.

Taylor is a regular churchgoer who had suffered the indignity of seizures in church. She was hesitant at first, and sought the opinions of her church’s pastor and first lady. When they did not respond, she decided for herself.

“I looked at it, like, well, it’s an herb,” she said. “It’s natural, you know. God grows it. It don’t hurt us. As long as no chemical is in it, it doesn’t hurt us. And it’s helping us. Why not?”

Taylor’s doctor initially was reluctant to prescribe the remedy, but came around after hearing how it treated her symptoms.

Once wheelchair-bound, Taylor said she now walks freely, sometimes with a cane. She ushers at church, and plays with her seven grandchildren.

The marijuana eliminated 80 percent of what she called “baby seizures.” Previously, a flickering television screen could set off an epileptic episode that required a hospital stay.

“I can do more now,” she said. “I can get up and actually cook a meal-meal. I can clean up, somewhat, now. I can go out for a walk – before I couldn’t get out and walk.”

Different strains

The center offers three strains of marijuana that range in price from $300 to $500 per ounce, depending on formulation. It is seeking state approval for three other strains with higher levels of active chemicals, Thomas said. That means a smaller quantity would last a patient longer.

By the end of the summer the facility should be able to offer lozenges and lotions for patients unwilling or unable to smoke the plant, as well as liquid medicine for children with epilepsy. The lozenges and lotions are manufactured at another facility in the Philadelphia suburbs.

A state Department of Health spokesperson said the state’s medical marijuana program had dispensed 222 pounds of marijuana as of April 22. There were 286 doctors registered in the program statewide, and 2,000 patients. They used three operational alternate treatment centers, with three more pending.

Thomas said 15 to 20 patients sign up weekly with Compassionate Care. As of April 22 the center had 1,227 patient visits and 550 registered patients. It paid about $25,000 in state sales taxes in the first six months and keep current on township property taxes, Thomas said. The company employs 17 people with an expected $1 million payroll. There are five full-time volunteers, including Thomas.

The state tracks every plant from seed to sale with 24-hour surveillance of Compassionate Care, Thomas said. State regulators visit the center once or twice per week and have done two comprehensive quarterly reviews, finding few issues, he said.

“It would have been easier to open up a casino,” he joked about the close supervision.

Hundreds of plants

Thomas walked from the lobby through a secure door and into the cavernous heart of the former casino warehouse. The main plant-growing room is the size of a basketball court, shrouded in black tarp, with red and blue lights illuminating the space underneath. A pervasive marijuana smell hung ripe in the moist air and was nearly overpowering.

After a brief tour highlighting other parts of the operation, Thomas walked back to the growing room. Four people in white lab coats and black gloves sat at what looked like a custom-made, stainless steel-topped kitchen table. They snipped harvested plants, segregating plant buds, leaves, stems and seeds.

Thomas donned a white jacket. It was 85 degrees and 44 percent humidity inside, with carbon dioxide levels more than 150 percent current atmosphere levels. Hundreds of marijuana plants in different stages of growth sat in black pots beneath lamps. Some were brilliant, yellowish, 1,000-watt sodium vapor flood lamps others were overpowering red and blue LED lights.

The center spends about $8,000 on electricity per month, Thomas said, and spent about $8,000 per month on natural gas during winter.

A few young scrawny twigs sat next to bushy shrubs, thick with walnut-sized buds, in one part of the room. Other chest-high plants are destined to serve as mother plants for future cuttings.

“These are like the Octo-mom,” Thomas joked.

A broader future

The growth at Compassionate Care comes as use of the once-forbidden plant has grown increasingly acceptable. Now, 21 states allow medical use of cannabis and two permit recreational use.

Since New Jersey authorized medical use of marijuana, some state lawmakers have proposed a limited decriminalization. However, Gov. Chris Christie has said he opposes that.

Still, advocates say if Florida voters in November make the state the 22nd to allow medical use, as expected, more than 70 percent of Americans will live in states without absolute marijuana bans.

However, a sharp line continues to be drawn for those who grow and distribute marijuana without official sanction.

In one instance, Egg Harbor Township police arrested Luis Alba and his girlfriend, 23-year-old Miluska Jimenez-Espinoza, in early March, after an unrelated investigation led police to discover 87 marijuana plants in the basement of their home in Hamilton Township’s Mizpah section.

Alba was charged with first-degree marijuana cultivation and possession after more than 50 plants and more than 25 pounds of marijuana were found. Both charges carry 10- to 20-year prison sentences. He also faces a lesser distribution charge. The matter is currently under grand jury review, Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Jay McKeen said.

Law enforcement has a different relationship with Compassionate Care. Internal security protocols require center employees call Egg Harbor Township police when a car drives by the facility more than twice, Thomas said. A police car usually arrives within two or three minutes.

The township and the facility have a good relationship, said Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough. It has complied with township requests, and he said he has heard only positive comments since it opened.

“I feel very comfortable that they’re doing the right thing and providing the service to the people who need it,” McCullough said.

Thomas agreed. Ultimately, he said, he is in the medicine business.

Just 0.4 percent of the half-million state residents he believed could be helped are now enrolled in the program. Thomas blamed state regulations that mandate high costs, as well as lingering perceptions of marijuana.

he said the center plans to release soon a documentary chronicling patients’ experiences, titled “It’s Not What You Think.”

“We’re trying to get patients to know we can help them,” he said.

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