N.J. lawmakers finalize rules governing medical marijuana program
Published: Tuesday, November 29, 2011, 9:14 AM
TRENTON — Amid signs that New Jersey’s medical marijuana program is in disarray, state officials have taken major steps to get six treatment centers serving thousands of patients up and running sometime next year.
The moves, made in the past week, include putting the finishing touches on rules to govern the program and requesting the six approved growers comply with a final round of evaluation before they plant their first crop.
But the government will not meet its goal of making pot available to patients before the end of the year.
The state’s program, has been largely idle since it passed into law nearly two years ago, and has faced growing criticism in the past months. The actions follow recent Star-Ledger reports showing the program to be disorganized and far from ready to launch. The newspaper detailed concerns about the vetting of two proposed medical marijuana treatment centers and other problems with the program, including appeals filed by four separate centers challenging the state’s selection process.
In addition, patients and dispensary officials have growing concerns about the lack of progress in getting the centers up and running. The patients’ I.D. cards have not been made, and the health department is unsure if it will even publish the names of 108 physicians who have pre-registered for the program, leaving patients unsure how they can find an appropriate doctor.
Chris Goldstein of the patient advocacy group, the Coalition for Medical Marijuana of New Jersey, said he remains disappointed the program will not be running by the end of the year, as Christie said publicly in July. “There hasn’t been a promise kept yet by the legislature or governor,” he said.
Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey and one of the primary proponents who helped passed the law in January 2010, was more upbeat about the incremental progress.
“We are disappointed it won’t be up and running by the end of the year, but progress is progress,” she said.
Scotti said she also is encouraged the Department of Health and Senior Services officials noted in the rules they finalized Wednesday they were willing to revisit one of the most unpopular restrictions: limiting the potency level of the drug to no more than 10 percent.
The department will cap the potency level at 10 percent for now, but will “collect data from patients to evaluate whether the 10 percent limit on THC should be revisited in future rulemaking,’’ according to a written response from health officials following a March public hearing.
“We are thrilled the department is willing to consider this moving forward,’’ Scotti said.
Goldstein said he believes once the program gets started, this rule “would be difficult to enforce and practice . . .The cap is arbitrary is not based on anything medical or having to do with the patient. It’s purely a political cap.”
The department also will not enforce a provision that required doctors treating patients who use medical marijuana to wean them off the drug as soon as possible. “The rule. . .will not require a physician to take steps periodically to stop or reduce medical marijuana . . .if the physician determines that the patient is achieving treatment objectives,” according to the health department’s written response to the public hearing.
The department has hired New York pediatrician Arturo Brito as Deputy Commissioner for Public Health Services, whose job includes oversight of the program, said department spokeswoman Donna Leusner. Brito replaces Susan Walsh in taking over the $140,000 job.
Except for a few revisions, the final version of the rules did not change much from the proposed rules first introduced in February.
The department is still vetting the six nonprofit dispensary operators, and notified them they must complete a 71-page permitting request form and ensure all employees undergo police and FBI background checks. Once the department deems the documents are complete, it has 60 days to evaluate the information and issue a final permit to let the growing begin, Leusner said.
Joe Stevens, president and CEO for the Greenleaf Compassion Center planned for Montclair, said while the background check is “comprehensive,” he and his board have already gathered the information and will mail it off next week.
“It looks like the department is going in the right direction,” Stevens said.