By now, the owners of an empty storefront in Montclair expected to be dispensing medical marijuana to hundreds of cancer and multiple sclerosis patients suffering from demoralizing pain.
Instead, brown paper covers the windows, and the green awning still bears the name of an old business. Greenleaf Compassion Center officials have spent more than $80,000, all while they wait for the go-ahead.
As Wednesday’s two-year anniversary of Gov. Jon Corzine signing New Jersey’s medical marijuana act approaches, one thing is clear: The health department isn’t close to opening the first dispensary.
It is amid mounting concerns about the problem-riddled program that officials at some of the six approved centers are taking a new aggressive tone, calling out the state and threatening litigation.
“How long can it go on? … Are (we) foolish to keep investing in a failed program?” said Joe Stevens, the head of Greenleaf Compassion.
At least two centers — Breakwater Alternative Treatment Center in Central Jersey and Compassionate Care Foundation in South Jersey — told The Star-Ledger it is likely they will sue municipalities that denied plans to open facilities. Among other concerns, the owners fear a not-in-our-town mind-set will spread across the state as delays linger.
“Every time you go to a town and get turned down, it’s harder to get into the next town,” said Bill Thomas, CEO of the Compassionate Care dispensary. “The next town assumes something is wrong. It’s a contagion of ignorance.”
Department of Health and Senior Services spokeswoman Donna Leusner did not give a specific date for when Greenleaf or the other centers will receive permits.
When asked about the centers’ difficulties finding locations, she said the department defers to local governance.
AN EMPTY SPACE IN MONTCLAIR
By all indications, Greenleaf Compassion Center is in the best shape of the state’s six medical marijuana centers. It’s the only one to get local approval, securing spots for a dispensary on Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair and a grow site at an undisclosed location.
But Greenleaf is stuck in a holding pattern, unable to start growing marijuana without a permit from the state health department.
In August, Stevens said, state health department officials told him to build his grow facility, if he had a signed lease.
The goal was to open in January.
“I was foolish to believe the state,” he said. “We moved forward on good faith.”
Since September, Greenleaf officials have paid rent on two facilities and sunk nearly $55,000 into building part of the grow site, they say. The total costs, including the rent, exceed $80,000.
And as the monthly rent bills continue to arrive, Stevens doesn’t know when they will get a permit.
“I’m not getting any answers,” he said, referring to the health department. “There is no communication.”
The Star-Ledger published a series of articles this fall that detailed many problems with the state’s medical marijuana program, from disorganization to poor vetting of the centers’ staffs. Since then, state officials have made some changes.
Gov. Chris Christie tapped retired State Police Lt. John O’Brien in late November to take over the program and implement a rigorous backgrounding procedure.
Leusner declined several requests for an interview with O’Brien.
She said Greenleaf will be awarded a permit “when the department is satisfied that it has met all of the requirements in the statute and regulations including completion of the Permitting Application form, Personal History Disclosure form, fingerprints and an inspection of facilities.”
Additionally, she said the timetable for each center has “many variables,” pointing out the complexity of the applications and local approval process.
CHANGES IN WESTAMPTON
Officials from Compassionate Care thought it was a done deal.
The South Jersey group nabbed an ideal warehouse in Westampton, located off Exit 5 on the New Jersey Turnpike, with an eager landlord. Local officials seemed supportive, said Thomas, the group’s CEO, who added that he put down a deposit on the property.
But that changed when the group had to face a land-use board and a dreaded public hearing earlier this month.
“The people who are against something, they come out,” Thomas said.
Attempts for zoning approval, and then a use variance, failed.
Thomas anticipates filing an appeal in Superior Court, arguing that the zoning ruling had no merit.
Even if a legal battle is under way, the group will explore sites in five or six other municipalities.
Upper Freehold moves to block medical marijuana growing facility
In New Jersey’s long road to becoming a medical marijuana state, it turns out that passing the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act was just the beginning. Two years later, the controversy has moved from the Statehouse in Trenton into the halls of municipal complexes, where approved medical marijuana treatment centers have encountered local resistance. On Thursday, the five-person township committee for the small, rural town of Upper Freehold, in Monmouth County, gathered at Stonebridge Middle School, in Allentown, to enact a local law that would effectively ban a proposed medical marijuana growing center in their town. The law, which passed unanimously, prevents local approval for any applications that explicitly violate federal law — which, of course, includes growing marijuana. An overwhelming majority of residents who turned out for Thursday night’s meeting were there to express, in no uncertain terms, their desire to see the proposed facility, Breakwater Alternative Treatment Center, run out of town. (Video by Nyier Abdou/The Star-Ledger)
“The first town that steps up and says we want your jobs, we want to help people, we want economic development … we’re there,” Thomas said.
“We’re looking for some town that wants to be a hero,” he added.
Meanwhile, Thomas wonders how long this scenario can continue.
“At some point in time, we have to stop burning money, going town to town and begging for a building,” he said.
At a recent meeting with O’Brien and health department officials, Thomas was frank about their challenges.
“I said, ‘I may have to sue to get a building. Are you going to give me a year to get a permit or are you going to take away my right to have a permit?’ ” he said. “I didn’t get an answer.”
Thomas said he also questioned if there was another option, such as the state leasing its own unused property or abandoned buildings.
Medical marijuana’s future in New Jersey
With so little information about how New Jersey’s program will work, The Star-Ledger visited two states with very different cannabis laws — New Mexico, which the New Jersey Legislature looks to as a model of a responsible medical marijuana program, and Colorado, which has lax laws and is seen by some as a state that has lost control. (Video by John Munson / The Star-Ledger)
Leusner said she had “no information” about the feasibility of that idea.
THE PUSHBACK IN UPPER FREEHOLD
When it comes to creativity in the medical marijuana debate, Upper Freehold takes the prize.
In December, officials in the agrarian community approved a unique ordinance that prohibits any applications to the township that violate federal law. While it does not mention medical marijuana, it’s clearly a tactic to block Breakwater Alternative Treatment Center’s proposed growing site.
“It’s not a genuine act. It’s not something they had on the books ever before. It’s designed for a single purpose,” said Jon Fisher, a Breakwater official. “It’s baloney.”
That’s why his group is likely, although not yet certain, to file a lawsuit in Superior Court in the coming weeks.
And he’s adamant that Upper Freehold is wrong.
“Give us a fair shake,” he said. “If you would have treated me fairly, it wouldn’t have come to this.”
THE STATE’S POSITION
The state health department has taken a decidedly hands-off approach in handling the local debates. No representatives have been present at township zoning hearings, which have turned heated in some cases.
Despite criticism from some center officials, Leusner said this is standard procedure.
“By way of familiar example, when a hospital or surgery center applies to the Department for a license to operate, the Department does not attend municipal meetings on its behalf,” she said in an e-mail.
Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), who cosponsored the state law, said he’s recently encouraged by the resources the administration has devoted, including the hiring of O’Brien.
“There’s no real progress. It’s been two years, and it’s all about the people, and the people are still suffering,” he said. “It’s terrible.
“I hope we’re not having the same conversation 12 months from now.”
– Article originally from NJ.com.