NJ: Medical Marijuana Shortages And Longer Lines Await New Patients

Photo Credit: Jose Carlos Fajardo

On a recent trip to pick up some medical marijuana in Cranbury, Edward Grimes got in the back of a line he said was the longest he’s ever waited in.

When he got to the front, Grimes discovered the dispensary had run out of Lemon G, a strain of marijuana he uses to treat back pain and spasms.

Grimes is among New Jersey’s registered medical marijuana patients who say that in the past month they’ve seen increased wait times at dispensaries, as well as shortages of certain strains of cannabis. The problems are at least in part because of an influx of new patients to the state’s program after Gov. Phil Murphy launched an expansion in March that allowed people with common conditions such as anxiety and chronic pain to register.

“They can’t handle the demand,” Grimes said of the dispensaries. “It’s going to get worse.”

The Department of Health reports that more than 5,000 patients have been added to the state’s medical marijuana program since the beginning of the year. Before Murphy took office, the program had about 16,000 registered patients. Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal has said that, since the expansion, about 100 new patients register for medical marijuana every day.

That growth is expected to continue and has moved the Health Department to start allowing the existing medical marijuana dispensaries to expand. Curaleaf – the Bellmawr dispensary formerly known as Compassionate Sciences – opened a standalone dispensary earlier this month, while Garden State Dispensary has gotten initial approval on an additional location in Union Township.

George Schidlovsky, executive director of Curaleaf’s Bellmawr operation, said the new retail facility has allowed them to take on more patients. Previously, Curaleaf’s dispensary was smaller, since it was part of the same building that housed the cultivation facility.

Two of the state’s other medical marijuana facilities – Compassionate Care Foundation in Egg Harbor Township and Breakwater Alternative Treatment Center in Cranbury – have asked the department for permission to expand, according to Donna Leusner, a department spokeswoman.

David Knowlton, founder and president of Compassionate Care Foundation, said the dispensaries in the state have all been experiencing the impact of the growing number of patients.

“Certainly, we’re feeling it,” Knowlton said. “The changes with Gov. Murphy were wonderful, but they happened suddenly. You end up having an influx of patients … and it takes a while for supply to catch up to demand.”

Compassionate Care recently partnered with Acreage Holdings, one of the nation’s largest cannabis companies, to open and manage a more than 100,000-square-foot growing site in Gloucester County.

The company is also seeking permission from the state Health Department to open dispensaries in Atlantic City, Cherry Hill and Moorestown.

The expansion of the state’s current medical marijuana facilities is expected to be complemented by new businesses coming into the market. Jeff Brown, assistant commissioner of the medical marijuana program, told NJ Advance Media that the Health Department is studying demand with eyes on issuing licenses to new businesses to grow and sell medical marijuana.

The department has fielded some calls from patients about longer wait times and dispensaries running out of certain strains, Brown said, but added that there’s not a supply crisis across the entire state. The dispensaries in Cranbury, Montclair and Woodbridge did not return multiple calls for comment on this story.

Still, bringing more players into the market will help reduce the wait and prevent future shortages of certain strains, Brown said. Dispensaries running out of certain strains means patients sometimes can’t get the medicine that works best for them. Not all strains provide the same relief. Some relieve pain or quell anxiety, while others stimulate appetite.

Patients say they’re desperate for the medical marijuana expansion to bring new facilities.

“The expansion is like a balloon that was already overinflated and now it’s just popped,” said Amanda Hoffman, a medical marijuana patient who sits on the board of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, an advocacy group.

The state’s newest facility has already been attracting a lot of new patients. Schidlovsky said his Curaleaf dispensary registered 47 new patients in a single day last week and that it can sell to as many as 1,000 patients a day. Schidlovsky, whose operation has previously faced its share of criticism over wait times, said patients have recently come to his facility complaining of long lines and sold-out strains at other dispensaries.

One thing that officials say will help the flock of new patients is the long-awaited opening of the state’s sixth dispensary: Harmony Foundation in Secaucus. That facility was initially approved in 2011, but ran into financial and land-use problems. Harmony was permitted to start growing marijuana last year and is expected to open in the coming weeks, said dispensary spokeswoman Leslie Hoffman.

Until the Secaucus site opens, the northern part of the state is served by only one dispensary, Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair, meaning some of the state’s most populous counties don’t have easy access.

But more facilities are likely coming.

While the Health Department is studying demand for medical marijuana, bills aimed at expanding the program are in both chambers of the state Legislature.

The state wants to start issuing separate licenses for growers, retailers and processors, said Brown, of the Health Department. Current law doesn’t allow the department to issue separate licenses, so a rule change is required.

Whichever bill comes out of Trenton, Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, said he expects to see substantial growth in New Jersey’s program.

“If we’re experiencing some delays and unavailable strains now, you’re going to have to double the supply to meet the demand,” he said.