Busiest medical marijuana dispensary in N.J. is in tiny Bellmawr

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Cherry-flavored cannabis lozenges that are available at Bellmawr dispensary for patients explains why a report says the dispensary is the busiest in the state, the manager says.

The medical marijuana dispensary that opened in Camden County in September 2015 is the busiest of the five that have opened in New Jersey since the program began seven years ago, according to a Department of Health annual report.

Compassionate Sciences Alternative Treatment Center, in an industrial park in tiny Bellmawr, served 2,762 patients and sold nearly 885 pounds of cannabis in 2016, the report said.   The state had nearly 10,800 registered patients as of the end of last year.

Craig West, the dispensary operations manager, said Thursday the major reason is that Compassionate Sciences is the only one in the state to offer cannabis extracts to its patients.  “Probably between 20 and 30 percent of our patients purchase extracts,” he said, adding that “hundreds of patients travel two hours from the tippy-top of the state” to obtain the extracts.

The first cannabis-infused lozenges were approved for sale in the state last October.  At that time, the dispensary was selling a bottle of 30 grape- or cherry-flavor lozenges for $75, or $60 if patients qualify for financial assistance, according to a notice sent out to patients. 

West declined to provide prices Thursday but said the lozenges are made using a sophisticated CO² extraction process.  The lozenges were described as "soft tablets (troches) formulated to dissolve slowly in your mouth. " 

None of the other dispensaries have been approved to sell extracts, though at least two submitted applications.  Donna Leusner, spokesperson for the Health Department, said there are no active applications at this time. 

“From a physician’s standpoint, it’s not always the best idea for a patient to smoke,” West said, noting many of the patients are elderly.  Children with epilepsy also are unable to smoke marijuana, and parents have resorted to making their own extracts, or oils, from the raw cannabis that is sold, and then adding it to their food. 

West said providing the extracts to these parents and others also relieves patients of the “burden of having to make their own butter or oils from the marijuana.”

The report also noted that Compassionate Care Foundation – the only other dispensary open in South Jersey – served 1,527 patients and sold nearly 451 pounds in 2016.   That means the Egg Harbor-based dispensary in Atlantic County is the second to the last in the state in terms of patients and sales.  It opened in 2013.

The other dispensaries are in Woodbridge, Montclair, and Cranbury.

According to the report, about 4,700 new patients registered for the program last year, nearly doubling the number from the previous year.  There were 426 registered physicians who actively certified patients to obtain cannabis.

Among the dozen ailments or diseases that qualify a patient to obtain cannabis, intractable skeletal spasticity was the most common.  WebMD describes spasticity as “a muscle control disorder that is characterized by tight or stiff muscles and an inability to control those muscles.”  About 39 percent of patients who are eligible for marijuana are diagnosed with this condition. 

The second most common ailment was listed  as “severe or chronic pain,” according to the Health Department report.  A two-hour hearing held Wednesday before a health panel was devoted to  testimony from patients who would like to see the list of ailments expanded to include chronic pain and other conditions.  The panel is expected to make a recommendation to add chronic pain to the list.

Leusner said that two of the existing qualifying conditions are HIV/AIDS or cancer “and severe or chronic pain, severe nausea or vomiting, cachexia or wasting syndrome” as a result of those ailments. 

Patients submitted petitions asking that just “chronic pain,” derived from a number of ailments, be named one of the qualifying conditions.

The report also noted that 466 patients obtained cannabis last year to alleviate symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.  Gov. Christie signed a bill in September allowing PTSD to be added to the list.  That number represented the flood of PTSD patients who enrolled in the medical marijuana program over the next three months, ending in December.