Pubdate: Mon, 16 Jan 2012
Source: Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ)
Copyright: 2012 Newark Morning Ledger Co
Author: Amy Brittain, The Star-Ledger


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 the two-year anniversary of Gov. Jon Corzine signing New Jersey's 
medical marijuana act approaches on Wednesday, 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 
in Montclair, a group that is not threatening any lawsuits.

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 towns that denied 
plans to open facilities. Among other concerns, the owners fear a 
not-in-our-town mindset 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, the C.E.O. of the 
Compassionate Care dispensary. "The next town assumes something is 
wrong. It's a contagion of ignorance."

The spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Senior Services, 
Donna Leusner, did not give a specific date 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.


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 say they have paid rent on two 
separate facilities and sunk nearly $55,000 into building part of the 
grow site. 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, the spokeswoman for the health department, 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 

Additionally, she said the timetable for each center has "many 
variables," pointing out the complexity of the applications and local 
approval process.


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 New Jersey Turnpike, with an eager landlord. 
Local officials seemed supportive, said Thomas, the group's C.E.O., 
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, both 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 towns.

"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."

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.

Leusner, the spokeswoman for the health department, said she had "no 
information" about the feasibility of that idea.


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 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, the department 
spokeswoman, 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."
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