As New Jersey’s first medicinal marijuana provider six years ago, the founder of Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair said he and his partners drained their bank accounts when lenders would not touch them. They tangled with a distrustful administration of then-Gov. Chris Christie before and after they opened.
Now that the state has a governor who is willing to expand the medical marijuana program and legalize recreational cannabis, Greenleaf’s CEO Julio Valentin and other dispensary owners who took the early financial and legal risks say they are ready to step up and serve this growing market.
“I’ve proven myself before and I can do it again,” Valentin said in a recent interview. “Just give me the opportunity to do what I do.”
But despite Gov. Phil Murphy’s support of cannabis, his administration delayed what many expected he would do right away: adopt a medical advisory panel’s recommendation to add broad conditions like chronic pain and anxiety.
Doing so likely would have opened the door to thousands of patients. Murphy says he’s waiting for the results of a 60-day audit of the medicinal program before he discusses his next move.
Murphy officials are concerned New Jersey’s five dispensaries won’t be able to meet the demands of a larger patient base beyond the nearly 16,000 people enrolled in the medical program, according to insiders privy to the conversations.
Investors and entrepreneurs are pushing for a piece of the medicinal marijuana market once the audit is complete.
Dan Bryan, Murphy’s spokesman, last week confirmed that new dispensaries will be added. Bryan did not specify whether this meant permitting existing operators to open satellite locations, licensing new growers, or both.
“Governor Murphy remains committed to expanding New Jersey’s medical marijuana program and eliminating unnecessary barriers to access for patients who currently are not able to obtain medical marijuana treatments in the state,” Bryan said. “Gov. Murphy is committed to doing everything within his authority to modernize the program, a process that will include opening new dispensaries in the state as the need for medical marijuana expands.”
Bill Caruso, a founding member of the pro-legalization group, New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform and a lobbyist for an aspiring grower, said he agrees with the governor’s decision “to pump the brakes.”
“They are worried about what happened in Nevada,” where medicinal dispensaries ran out of supply almost immediately after recreational marijuana was legalized on July 1. “We have only six dispensaries — not even six.”
New Jersey has five dispensaries; a sixth, Foundation Harmony in Secaucus, is expected to open in early spring, a spokeswoman said last week.
Caruso said he expects Murphy will approve an expansion for both veterans and newcomers to the medicinal program.
Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, said he understands both the Murphy administration reticence and the frustration of dispensary owners and patients.
“They want to encourage competition for quality and cost, but they don’t want to create an environment where there are too many dispensaries,” Vitale said.
“New conditions should be approved immediately” so patients and their physicians can start the process of applying to the program, he added.
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, introduced a bill on Thursday that would address several of Murphy’s concerns with the state’s medical marijuana program. Among other provisions, the bill would triple the number of dispensaries, allow patients to buy edibles and other products, and it would add chronic pain to the list of qualifying conditions.
Kris Krane, CEO of 4Front Ventures, a cannabis investment and management firm, predicts New Jersey will use an expanded medical marijuana program to help launch its recreational market later on.
States that used medical dispensaries to help the expansion into a recreational market have had the most success, while other states that tried to start a recreational market from scratch struggled in the beginning, said Krane, board of trustees member of the New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association.
“You can kind of kill two birds with one stone here by doing the morally important thing…while building the infrastructure” for a recreational market, he said.
After years of living under the most restrictive medical marijuana program in the nation, dispensary owners says they are anxious to demonstrate what they can offer.
Aaron Epstein, general manager of Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge, said the facility has an additional 20,000 square feet of space that could be used to increase production. He also has an agreement for another cultivation site. He wouldn’t provide specifics on either plan, saying it was too early to comment.
“We’re currently planning to be able to handle increased demand,” Epstein said during a recent tour. “We’re hoping sometime within the next month and half we see these expanded conditions, we see some of these barriers to entry eliminated and we see a lot of progress in moving this industry forward.”
David Knowlton, board president for Compassionate Care Foundation of Egg Harbor, said they have room inside their 80,000 square-foot facility to double their growth in 90 days, and “double it again in another 90 days.
The dispensary owners recently met with Deputy Health Commissioner Jackie Cornell at her request, Knowlton said, to talk about meeting increased demand.
“They were very responsive, collegial and problem-solving,” Knowlton added.
Some patients say they are eager for change.
“I wait on a line now at my dispensary and when I get to the counter, they are usually out of the strain that I need,” Edward Grimes of East Hanover, a registered patient and cannabis activist told, NJ Advance Media.
Amanda Hoffman of Summit, also a registered patient, said she is “fed-up with the utter nonsense” of the state’s program.
“Current (dispensaries) cannot keep up with current patient traffic. We need the Department of Health Commissioner to sign those petitions on his desk ASAP, but we need more dispensaries and more options to support that anticipated patient growth,” Hoffman added.