New Jersey's first medical marijuana dispensary has been cleared to begin selling the drug to patients who register with the state Department of Health.
After weeks of setbacks, Greenleaf Compassion Center received a permit Monday to open for business in a former drug paraphernalia shop in Montclair, Essex County. The nonprofit organization will be allowed to offer only strains with reduced potency.
Health Commissioner Mary O'Dowd said Greenleaf had passed its final inspections, but could not say when the dispensary would open for business. Asked if it would do so before the end of the year, she said: "I would expect that."
In August, when patients could begin signing up, O'Dowd had anticipated that Greenleaf would start dispensing marijuana in September. On Monday, she would say only that Greenleaf would open when it was ready.
Greenleaf chief executive Joe Stevens and his partner, Julio Valentin Jr., did not return calls seeking comment.
In August, Stevens also said he expected an early-September launch, but later explained that Montclair officials had told him it would take a few weeks to issue a certificate of occupancy after the building was renovated. He also said he did not know the Health Department would require laboratory testing of the marijuana before granting final approval.
O'Dowd said photo ID cards would be mailed to the 190 patients who registered with the Health Department after their doctors certified that they had medical conditions that can be alleviated by marijuana. An additional 130 patients are still going through the registration.
More than a year ago five other nonprofit companies received preliminary approval to open dispensaries, but they have been stymied by the lengthy process.
New Jersey is one of 17 states to allow medical marijuana despite a federal ban on the use of the substance. Federal officials have told the states they will not enforce the ban if marijuana is dispensed only to sick people and if state regulations are obeyed.
O'Dowd said her agency wanted to make sure New Jersey's program could withstand legal challenges and had taken the time to put together regulations to protect the public as well as patients. One of the challenges in implementing the program, she said, is that "the federal government views this as an illegal product."
Some dispensary owners and patients believe the state has been overly cautious and restrictive, causing patients to needlessly suffer.
Compassionate Care Foundation, one of the two nonprofits that plan to open a dispensary in South Jersey, has had to push back its estimated opening date many times in the last year because of problems getting local and state approvals. Its principal officers have had to undergo more than eight months of background checks, including extensive scrutiny of their finances.
William J. Thomas, the dispensary's chief executive, said last month that his company might be forced to abandon its plans if the background checks are not finalized soon.
O'Dowd said Monday those checks had not been completed. Thomas did not return a call and e-mail seeking comment.
Patients also have been getting anxious, especially those who paid the state's $200 registration fee in August and were expecting to receive their medicine last month.
"As each day passes, there's someone new who is suffering and someone new at risk of being prosecuted for self-medicating" by purchasing marijuana on the black market, said Rich Caporusso, a Medford man who was among the first patients to register.
He has Crohn's disease. He said his doctor believes his pain can be controlled by marijuana without the side effects of stronger drugs. In April, he sued the Health Department, saying it was stalling and ignoring patients' pain.
The medical marijuana law that then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed in January 2010 was supposed to be implemented that summer. But when Gov. Christie took office a few weeks after the signing, he wanted a full review of its provisions and also assurances from the federal government that there would be no prosecution.
The Health Department also took months to craft stringent regulations to limit the drug to patients with terminal illnesses, multiple sclerosis, and other serious ailments.
Jay Lassiter, an AIDS/HIV patient from Cherry Hill, said the Health Department's announcement was "wonderful news." He said he hoped there were no more snags.
He said the news was bittersweet because it came too late for Diane Riportella, a friend and patient activist who had testified at hearings, urging the Health Department to stop the delays in implementing the program.
She died last month of ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). "She should have been first in line," Lassiter said.
(c)2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer