Pubdate: Mon, 04 Mar 2013
Source: Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ)
Copyright: 2013 Newark Morning Ledger Co
Author: Susan K. Livio


Montclair Medical Center Gets Conflicting Feedback, Others Are Slow to Open Up

TRENTON - The first letter the state Health Department sent to New 
Jersey's lone medical marijuana dispensary last month described its 
inventory tracking problems as "inexcusable" and threatened to shut 
the operation down.

The health department's second letter - arriving the next day - 
expressed appreciation for "the work that you have accomplished thus 
far" but said Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair could do far 
more to reduce the mounting backlog of hundreds of patients eager to 
buy its product.

Greenleaf's founders said they are perplexed by the state's 
conflicting messages. They're angry the state is citing them for 
problems they argue were fixed months ago. Most of all, they are 
frustrated they remain the only medical marijuana dispensary after 
the health department selected six nonprofit groups two years ago 
this month to be the Garden State's sanctioned growers.

"Without Greenleaf, there is no medical marijuana program. We are 
bearing the burden for the entire state," said dispensary co-founder 
Julio Valentin Jr., who shared the letters with The Star-Ledger. "We 
are fighting for the existence of this program."

Three years after its passage, New Jersey's medical marijuana law is 
mired in bureaucratic and legal challenges and remains far from 
delivering on the promise of providing relief to the most severely 
ill patients for whom traditional medicine has failed.

Open since Dec. 6, Greenleaf has served 114 patients at least once, 
according to the health department, and the remaining 562 registered 
patients can expect a two-month delay in getting an appointment.

While the state health commissioner expects the program to expand in 
the coming year, the Christie administration is the target of several 
legal challenges over the management of the program. One case accuses 
the state of intentionally delaying the program. Three others 
awaiting an appeals court ruling demand the state disqualify some or 
all of the organizations it approved to operate centers two years ago 
because they have yet to meet state and local requirements.

"I'd call it a disappointment," said medical marijuana activist Jay 
Lassiter, a Greenleaf client. He said he knows many "angry people" 
waiting for appointments and suspects the governor's public reticence 
to embrace the law remains a barrier.

"But blaming Greenleaf would be like blaming the flight attendant for 
a flight that got off the ground late and had a bumpy ride the whole 
way," Lassiter said. "That's squarely on Christie."


State Health Commissioner Mary O'Dowd said the state is anticipating 
the program will grow, noting its budget for the fiscal year that 
begins July 1 will more than double to $1.6 million.

She said four of the five potential center operators have secured 
locations to cultivate and sell medical marijuana. Two of the four - 
Compassionate Care Centers of America Foundation in Woodbridge and 
Compassionate Care Foundation in Egg Harbor - are close to completing 
the background checks, site plans and other requirements necessary to 
earn a permit to start growing, she said.

O'Dowd said she's not ready to rescind the preliminary approval 
granted to the other groups that were supposed to open "alternative 
treatment centers."

"I think we have been making progress," O'Dowd said in an interview 
last week. "We have done everything we can to push them forward."

O'Dowd said the violation letter that threatened suspension or 
revocation of Greenleaf's license, sent by program director John 
O'Brie, relied on "cut and pasted" boilerplate language that 
inspectors use to monitor other health-related facilities.

"It should not be taken as an aggressive stance," she said. "So long 
as they commit to a plan of correction, they are not in jeopardy."

Specifically, Greenleaf needs to put their inventory procedures in 
writing, O'Dowd said. "We have no reason to believe they are doing 
anything illegal or inappropriate," she said. "This is an area where 
the federal government has come down very hard on other states. If 
the federal government were to choose to take action, this is an area 
. we would want to be able to withstand their scrutiny."

While conceding the patient backlog and a lack of other dispensaries 
puts lots of pressure on Greenleaf, O'Dowd said, "There are things 
Greenleaf can do to better serve New Jersey's population."

O'Dowd noted Greenleaf is selling only half of the marijuana it has 
grown because the potency level is low. "They could offer that at 
lower cost, and we have encouraged them to do that," she said.

The owners could also open six days a week, as they promised in their 
application, instead of one or two, she added.


Greenleaf co-founder Joe Stevens, who has had conflicts with the 
Christie administration, said health officials should acknowledge 
their role in the program's sluggish rollout.

Greenleaf has written inventory procedures that track every plant 
from soil to sale, he said. "If we didn't have these in place, we 
would not have been granted a permit," Stevens said.

Program inspectors are "constantly asking us to deviate from policy - 
then they write us up for that," he said. Greenleaf and state 
inspectors have quibbled over tracking procedures since before they 
opened. When the letter arrived saying the center's "actions have 
placed the future of your center in jeopardy," Greenleaf operators 
were stunned.

"I think they want us to fail," Stevens said.

Stevens said selling less potent pot would give patients "inferior 
product with no medicinal value" - and low levels of marijuana's 
pain- and nausea-easing and spasm-controlling properties.

Patients - most of whom are return customers - are responding well to 
Greenleaf's higher-quality marijuana, with some reporting they were 
able to stop taking some prescription drugs with serious side 
effects, Stevens said.

Greenleaf expected to serve 300 patients by the end of the first 
year, so they are ahead of schedule, and plan to expand their grow 
site to accommodate more people, Stevens said.

Bill Thomas, CEO of the dispensary planned for Egg Harbor, said that 
at some point, the health department should replace the groups who 
cannot get their act together and approve new operators so 
dispensaries can open in all corners of the state. But he added that 
he understands the state's tough approach in these early stages.

Thomas said the Egg Harbor dispensary is likely to open in the 
summer. With a new board, the vetting process is nearly over, he said.

It hasn't been easy, but he said this is needed because while New 
Jersey allows medical marijuana, selling the drug is technically 
against federal law and the federal government keeps a close watch.

"Beyond our mission of helping patients, my mission every day is not 
to go to jail," Thomas said. "The tough scrutiny and legal oversight 
is protection for us from federal prosecution."
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