Medical Marijuana Odds Get Higher in CT, but Anxiety Grows in N.J.

Canning jars hold marijuana in a cabinet at the La Brea Collective medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles. In New Jersey, frustration is growing among marijuana industry professionals, who were supposed to be in business by now. AP/Reed Saxon

What stands between terminally ill patients and the medical marijuana that could ease their pain in New Jersey is not the law, but Not-in-My-Backyard (NIMBY) backlash against dispensaries.  NIMBY battles have stalled New Jersey’s medical marijuana program ever since Gov. Chris Christie tried to move forward with plans to implement dispensaries last summer. Last week, a CEO of one of the dispensary companies said that bureaucratic sluggishness in response to the battles has cost him too much money, and he’s threatening to pull out of the business.

Maybe he’ll set up shop in Connecticut, where a bill that would legalize medical marijuana cleared its first hurdle in the state legislature on Wednesday, and could soon be on its way to Gov. Dannel Malloy’s desk. The governor says he supports the bill.

Some Connecticut lawmakers are fearful that the U.S. Justice Department‘s  crackdown on marijuana dispensaries in California could bode trouble for their state. But judging from the intrastate legal jam that’s keeping legal pot out of New Jersey patients’ pipes, Connecticut’s residents could be more a threat to than the feds.

New Jersey’s Marijuana Malaise

Gov. Jon Corzine signed the Compassionate Care Act in January 2010, but when Gov. Christie was finally preparing to open six privately operated dispensaries and grow operations in April 2011, plans were halted after the Justice Department began raiding growers and sellers in California (possessing and selling marijuana is a federal crime). In July,  Christie concluded that New Jersey would not have problems with the federal government because New Jersey’s program is very strict, only allowing terminally ill patients to hold up to 2 oz. of medium-strength marijuana at a time. In Alaska, for instance, patients can legally possess up to six plants (cue “baked Alaska” joke).

New Jersey has a very different form of legalization than in California, where patients can receive medical marijuana for non-life threatening ailments like anxiety and back pain, and where many dispensaries are gaudily adorned with neon pot leafs and other tongue-in-cheek paraphernalia.

At this point, 16 states and Washington D.C. have legalized medical marijuana, although the clash between state and federal law in California caused D.C. and Rhode Island to slow down progress toward setting up their dispensaries.

Since last July, the New Jersey towns selected for dispensaries have used zoning laws to prevent them from opening, and only two of six dispensary owners have secured a site to operate. In February, several New Jersey officials told the Wall Street Journal that they don’t expect the program to be up and running until early 2013.

Last week, Joe Stevens, CEO of  Greenleaf Compassion Center — the first company to secure a site, in Montclair, N.J. — sent a letter to Christie’s office, accusing the governor of sabotaging the program.

“I would like to withdraw from the program,” Stevens told the Star-Ledger. He said he has incurred $170,000 in expenses, and accused Christie and Health Department officials of failing to deliver in their promises to have the program in operation in by now. The governor responded that his hands are tied by the municipalities, and the Health Department says Greenleaf has not submitted additional information required for the company to receive its permit.

A (Peculiar-Scented) Wind Blows Through Connecticut

Connecticut lawmakers tried and failed to legalize medical marijuana back in 2007.  The sponsor of the current bill that passed the committee last Wednesday,  Rep. Penny Bacchiochi (R), was able to successfully treat her terminally ill husband’s pain with marijuana, and her personal story helped garner support from fellow legislators.


Connecticut Rep. Penny Bacchiochi (R) advocates for the passage of a medical marijuana bill in a video posted March 11, 2012. YouTube/CTHouseRepublicans.

Last Wednesday, Quinnipiac University poll reported that 68 percent of Connecticut voters favor medical marijuana legalization. On the same day, the Connecticut General Assembly’s judiciary committee approved a bill to legalize medical marijuana. Like New Jersey’s law, Connecticut’s would have strict regulations that limit prescriptions to those with terminal illnesses, like Multiple Sclerosis, or illnesses where conventional pain medicine has failed, such as Glaucoma. Prescriptions would be limited to a one-year supply, and as in New Jersey, all growing and distribution would have to take place inside the state’s borders and marijuana providers would be licensed by the state.

In December, the director of the New Jersey branch of the anti-drug war advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, Roseanne Scotti, told MetroFocus, “They’ve [federal prosecutors] never interfered with a dispensary licensed by a state. In California, the dispensaries are not state licensed. In Colorado, they are, and we haven’t seen any interference in Colorado.”

Tamar Todd, the Drug Policy Alliance’s staff attorney, said it’s hard to tell what the federal government will do strategically, but Connecticut’s biggest hurdle after legalization would be the local land use battles. But she does have a solution to those problems.

“I’ve taken a look at the Connecticut bill and I know we offered some suggested amendments that would help avoid the problems they’re having in New Jersey. One problem is that the vast majority of states with medical marijuana bills have some provision that allows patients to grow their own marijuana. Those states that don’t have at least a safety valve provision allowing for home cultivation by patients and caregivers have not gone into effect,” said Todd.

MetroFocus asked a spokesperson from Rep. Bacchiochi’s office about this issue, and was told that the bill does not currently include a provision for home cultivation, because that’s what prevented a similar bill from passing in 2007. However, Rep. Bacchiochi’s office said the industry will be regulated by the state’s Department of Consumer Protection, which will decide on the industry’s specific arrangements, such how marijuana will be distributed from farms to pharmacies.

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