Pubdate: Sun, 23 Dec 2012
Source: Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ)
Copyright: 2012 Newark Morning Ledger Co
Author: Susan K. Livio


For Joe Stevens and Julio Valentin, the struggle to open New Jersey's 
first medical marijuana dispensary often seemed like chasing a mirage.

While starting any business is a tall order, try getting into selling 
medical marijuana just as skittish state officials are making rules 
under the glare of a governor determined to make sure New Jersey has 
the toughest restrictions in the nation.

Over the span of 21 months, opening the doors to the Greenleaf 
Compassion Center in Montclair took dozens of meetings and conference 
calls, hundreds of pages of paperwork that included everything from 
background checks and financial disclosure forms to how to collect 
taxes on pot - and long battles for permits to grow at a secret 
location and then sell to chronically ill patients.

Stevens and Valentin, who poured their life savings into the project, 
were also forced to play a long waiting game:

They waited while Gov. Chris Christie shut the program down for 
months because he feared federal officials might arrest someone 
involved with medical marijuana in New Jersey. They waited while 
state officials messed up paperwork and kept changing the rules. And 
they waited while there was nothing but silence from Trenton.

To top it off, opening the state's first medical marijuana dispensary 
brought a set of special circumstances you just don't get when trying 
to open, say, a dry cleaning business.

For example, while the law allows cultivating and selling medical 
pot, state officials feared that buying marijuana seeds could 
actually run afoul of federal law. So they told the Greenleaf 
founders: please don't let us know where you got those seeds - 
Jersey's own version of "don't ask, don't tell."

"The people will see we kept our word. We would not stop the fight," 
Valentin said as Greenleaf welcomed its first patients on Dec. 6. 
"And I hate to say it, but it was a fight."

Proponents of medical marijuana said they're glad Greenleaf kept up 
that fight, saying that if this group gave up, the whole effort would 
have ground to a halt.

Instead, Greenleaf wrote what could be the blueprint for medical 
marijuana dispensaries - and is already paving the way for others.

Just a few weeks ago, a dispensary planned for Egg Harbor Township 
secured the promise of crucial financing that was elusive because 
private lenders didn't think the program would ever get off the 
ground. Bill Thomas, the leader of the effort, said with Greenleaf's 
opening, "they could see the state is willing to open one and that 
patients show up."

Over the past year, Greenleaf's founders gave The Star-Ledger 
behind-the-scenes access for a first-hand look at what it took to 
open New Jersey's first medical marijuana center.

What emerged was a story of how two men who have been pals since 
their days in the Boy Scouts in Newark's North Ward overcame an 
increasingly frustrating bureacratic maze set by a governor they 
suspected of trying to sabatoge the whole program.

The two often feared they'd lose it all - they've pumped half a 
million dollars into the project, and Stevens has put his house up 
for sale - as chronically ill patients seeking medical pot to ease 
their pain kept calling them. Some board members and growers quit 
amid the uncertainty.

There were weeks when the friends avoided each other to keep from 
coming to blows as the pressure mounted.

And there was a cold day this March when Stevens decided he'd had 
enough and told the world he was ready to quit.

"We have jumped every hurdle," he said that day. "My heart is in 
this, but I am at the end of my rope and I don't know what to do."

The battle played out over a law Christie never liked - one that was 
signed by Democrat Jon Corzine the day before the Republican governor 
took office in January 2010.

Christie made no bones about it: without tight controls, the law had 
so many loopholes he feared Jersey could become like programs in 
California and Colorado that are derided as toker's paradises.

His administration took 14 months to approve six potential dispensary 
operations in March 2011. Greenleaf made the cut, after Stevens and 
Valentin had plunked down a $20,000 state fee.

After an injury ended his career with the Newark Police Department, 
Valentin, 43, had opened Eclectic Cafe, an upscale coffee bar 
featuring live music in Montclair in 1997. After 15 years as a 
funeral director and four the medical imaging field, Stevens, 40, was 
ready for a big change. They were planning a dispensary two years 
before New Jersey passed a medical marijuana law.

"I heard families' stories about how (marijuana) brought people 
quality of life," Stevens said. He wondered whether marijuana could 
have eased some of his father's suffering before he died of 
non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

But just a month after Stevens and Valentin got the go-ahead to build 
a medical pot business, Christie slammed the brakes on the program to 
get assurances federal officials wouldn't arrest anyone involved with 
it. It stalled everything until the summer of 2011.

The duo then rented and hired a crew to gut a former tobacco "head 
shop" in a century-old building on Bloomfield Avenue. They leased and 
renovated a 5,000-square-foot space for cultivation. And they learned 
everything they could about growing medical pot.

After filling out mountains of paperwork and meeting each state 
request, Stevens and Valentin spoke with state health officials last 
December, confident they'd get permission to start growing pot.

Instead, the state produced a new list of requirements and raised 
more questions. For example, the state had asked them to install two 
security cameras and they had. Now, state officials said, there needs 
to be seven cameras - and you can't get permission to grow pot unless 
you have them. They were stunned.

"There's no reason for me to go there and get upset, to stare at a 
half-empty storefront," Stevens said in January. "We signed leases 
worth thousands of dollars. What business can last two years without 
any revenue? I got a call from 67-year-old man from Cedar Grove wants 
to know when he can pick up his medication. I have no answers."

In February, their spirits were higher. Speaking above the banging of 
workmen's hammers in February, Valentin enthusiatically predicted the 
dispensary would be done by early March. "We're at the framing stage 
now, everything was gutted, and electrical, heating and air should be 
coming Monday... It's a good feeling."

It didn't last long. With no word from the state, the frustration 
boiled over in March as Stevens stood in the half-finished dispensary 
and went public with his threat to quit. He sent a letter to Christie 
accusing him of rigging the rules so medical marijuana would fail in 
New Jersey.

The governor dismissed the criticism, telling Stevens to "get back to 
work" and defending his approach: "I'm not going to compromise the 
safety and the security of this program."

But that public spat actually helped break the biggest logjam.

It was followed by a lawsuit from medical marijuana advocates who 
claimed the state was purposely delaying the law's implementation. 
The governor also faced criticism from across the state that he was 
stalling while chronically ill New Jerseyans were suffering.

Greenleaf, supporters said, was doing everything by the book, so if 
this group couldn't get approved, none would.

In this lowest moment, when Stevens wanted to quit, Valentin told his 
friend what was at stake. None of the five other nonprofits was close 
to opening, so giving up would be disappoint the people who had been 
calling them for months, he said.

"We are here for the patients, the people of New Jersey with the 
debilitating conditions," Valentin said. "They are the ones who are suffering."

Within a month, things changed. Meetings were held, and Stevens and 
Valentin credit John O'Brien, a retired State Police lieutenant 
Christie hired to run the medical marijuana program, with putting it 
all back on track. Greenleaf starting growing the state's first legal 
marijuana crop in April.

The job of growing the pot fell to Ricardo Luis, 33, who met Valentin 
and Stevens when they came to the hydroponics store he managed in 
April to ask for some advice. A Union native, Luis started 
cultivating Greenleaf's marijuana plants without pay in April, and 
quit his job last month to work full time for Greenleaf.

"I feel great to be a part of it all, to help them to be the first to 
open up. It's a medicine that does help," he said.

Luis is not only the lead cultivator. Suffering from a seizure 
disorder after a benign vascular tumor was cut out of his brain when 
he was 15, he is a registered patient with the state's medical 
marijuana program. And when his name rises to the top of the list, he 
will become a Greenleaf customer.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom