By Heather Haddon
Source: Wall Street Journal
New Jersey -- For the first time in generations, marijuana is legally growing in New Jersey. In a sign that the Garden State's budding medical marijuana program is finally moving forward, the first crop has been growing hydroponically for about a month in a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in an undisclosed location, officials said.
The first plants are about a foot high, said Joseph Stevens, president of the Greenleaf Compassion Center, the first licensed provider of medical pot. By mid-September, the center's Montclair dispensary should be open and accepting patients to buy marijuana, he said.
"We're excited. There's finally light at the end of the tunnel," said Mr. Stevens, who estimated his agency has spent $350,000 in start-up costs.
News of Greenleaf's crop marked a step forward for a medical-marijuana program that had been delayed by resistance from local governments and residents and the state's strict security requirements. Another nonprofit, the Compassionate Care Foundation, is also moving ahead and hopes to harvest a crop around November.
"The Department of Health is committed to ensuring that qualified patients obtain medicinal marijuana in a timely, safe and secure manner," said Donna Leusner, a department spokeswoman, in a statement.
Seventeen states and Washington, D.C., allow for the cultivation of medical marijuana for the sick.
Some chronic sufferers say the marijuana helps to ease pain and increase their appetite.
Enacted in January 2010, the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act allowed registered physicians to prescribe medical marijuana to patients with "debilitating medical conditions," such as cancer and multiple sclerosis. The first centers were supposed to open later that year.
Greenleaf gets calls every day from interested patients, Mr. Stevens said, but the precise demand for the product remains unclear. He is still figuring out how much he will need to grow.
Greenleaf's plants are grown in a base of coconut husk fiber instead of soil, set in trays underneath a special lighting system. Filtered water is pumped in from a 100-gallon tank into the trays, and the coconut husks allow the water to slowly drain out.
A lead grower oversees the process, along with three Greenleaf board members and a consulting firm that specializes in medical marijuana. The facility has extensive security, including cameras, metal doors and keypad systems to enter every room, Mr. Stevens said.
With Greenleaf and Compassionate Care moving ahead, medical marijuana advocates still worry about the progress of four other centers licensed in March 2011. None have yet secured a facility.
"There's no adequate explanation for why they aren't opening," said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, a Democrat who has called for a legislative hearing.
A spokesman said Assembly Speaker Shelia Oliver is aware of the concerns about the program and is considering whether to hold a hearing.
Marijuana is a controlled substance that is illegal under federal law. The Obama administration has taken a harder stance against businesses growing medical marijuana, causing some states to back away from the effort. The Christie administration decided to move forward with the state's program in July 2011.
Growing pot in New Jersey appears to have been illegal since 1933, when the cultivation of the plant and other narcotics was outlawed.
Legalizing it for the sick met unexpected protests from some towns and residents.
After facing resistance in the township of Westampton earlier in 2012, Compassionate Care secured a facility in Egg Harbor in February. The nonprofit has $1 million in investment, and plans to grow 2,000 plants to produce 3,000 ounces of pot, said Bill Thomas, CEO of the nonprofit.
The state Division of Gaming Enforcement, which typically vets casino owners for possible organized crime ties, is nearly finished with extensive background checks, Mr. Thomas said. He said he hopes to have a permit to grow pot by the end of August.
"We have had complete cooperation with the Department of Health. They are helping us," said Mr. Thomas. "It's just an arduous process."
The others four providers are "actively searching or in negotiations" for locations, Ms. Leusner said.
Breakwater Alternative Treatment Center, a licensed provider for the state's central area, was rejected last year by Upper Freehold. It is going ahead with talks with several municipalities, said Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon, a Republican and leading backer of medical marijuana.
"The goal here is to work with open-minded officials to realize that there's nothing to fear. It's a matter of doing the right thing for people who need these drugs," Mr. O'Scanlon said.
Calls to the other three providers—Compassionate Care Centers of America Foundation, Compassionate Sciences and Foundation Harmony—weren't returned.
Some have called for the state to reopen the bidding process. The state, however, isn't currently considering that, Ms. Leusner said.
Patients have become frustrated as they continue to use the drug illegally until a solution is found.
"It comes at great personal risk for patients to acquire and use cannabis medically," said Jay Lassiter, an activist who uses marijuana for conditions related to HIV.
A version of this article appeared July 18, 2012, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Legal for Some, Pot Crops Up in N.J..
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Author: Heather Haddon
Published: July 18, 2012
Copyright: 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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