South Jersey's first medical-marijuana dispensary is on track to open this fall with a supply large enough to handle the needs of the more than 1,200 severely ill patients who have been on the waiting list for months.
Leafy cannabis plants are rapidly growing in neat rows in a former casino warehouse in Egg Harbor Township and should soon be ready for harvest. Marijuana is expected to be sold to registered patients late next month or early October, according to Bill Thomas, chief executive officer of Compassionate Care Foundation.
"We will be open after three years of struggles," said Thomas, referring to hurdles the nonprofit had to overcome before it could open for business in a facility near Atlantic City.
The dispensary will be the second to open in the state, nearly four years after medical marijuana was legalized. The first, Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair, opened in December but then was closed during most of the summer. Its operators reported they had to replenish supplies after being overwhelmed with demand.
Since its opening, Greenleaf had served 126 of the state's 1,200 registered patients, according to the state Department of Health. It is unclear whether it has reopened after its operators said in June that the closure would be temporary. They have not answered numerous calls. A Health Department spokesperson said in an e-mail that "the availability of medicinal marijuana and the pace of Greenleaf's operation is based on its business capabilities and the independent business decisions of its board of directors."
Thomas said the first appointment in Egg Harbor would go to Vivian Wilson, a toddler who has severe epilepsy.
"Here is a 2-year-old who may die from seizures," said Thomas, who has received hundreds of calls from "very sick and terminally ill patients who are desperate" to obtain cannabis to alleviate their pain and symptoms.
"I told Vivian's father that she's our first patient. . . . We only got into this business to help people," Thomas said.
Vivian's family lives in Scotch Plains, Union County, and the child was issued a medical-marijuana card in February. Vivian's neurologist supports her parents' decision to try cannabis to stop her daily seizures.
In part because of lobbying by Vivian's and other parents, the state Legislature has approved changes in the law to make it easier for children to use cannabis. They would ingest it, likely in butter, rather than smoking it.
The bill is before Gov. Christie, who has expressed misgivings about allowing children to have medical marijuana.
Thomas said he was "enthused big-time" about opening the dispensary. But he said changes were needed in the way the program is structured or it is doomed in the long run.
"Unless they change the regulations, which everyone now agrees was a great experiment . . . the current program is going to collapse," he said in an interview with the Atlantic City Press recently posted on YouTube.
About 500,000 people in New Jersey qualify for cannabis, Thomas said, but the Health Department has approved only six dispensaries, two in each section of the state.
"The total weight of the patient demand will collapse the program as currently designed. We need to open up the regulations to respond to patient need," he said. He anticipates many more sick people would register if there were more dispensaries.
The Health Department announced Wednesday that a permit to begin growing marijuana was approved for a third dispensary, which will be in a former electronics store in Woodbridge, in central New Jersey.
"This permit marks another meaningful step in the ongoing process of the program," Health Commissioner Mary E. O'Dowd said in a statement. The dispensary, run by the nonprofit Compassionate Care Centers of America Foundation, a separate group, "will give patients more options to choose from in terms of geographic locations and the number of strains."
Usually it takes two to three months to cultivate and prepare the marijuana for sale, said Health Department spokesperson Donna Leusner. She has said that establishing the regulations has been challenging because the department is creating "a brand-new program."
Thomas said the department should "open up the regulations for review" to make sure the program was meeting the demand. He said health officials have told him they anticipated this might happen in about a year. A spokesperson did not respond to an e-mail for comment on the proposed review.
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Website: South Jersey medical pot dispensary set to open