Philly420: Christie pals profit with medical marijuana

The governor calls it a 'front for legalization,' yet his allies run dispensaries.

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in Orlando, Florida, June 2, 2015. REUTERS/Steve Nesius

Gov. Christie’s strong anti-marijuana views aren’t curtailing his associates from cashing in on cannabis. 

Christie is fond of railing against pot as a "gateway drug" in the national media. He also has described medical marijuana as a "a front for legalization."

Yet some of his closest allies and political operatives are running New Jersey's medical marijuana dispensaries. Now, some of the same folks are looking to win dispensary licenses in New York.

Kevin Barry, who holds a doctorate in anesthesiology and served on the governor's transition team, was first appointed by Christie to serve on the board of the state University of Medicine and Dentistry. Then he helped dismantle it. A prominent member of Christie's inner circle, Barry also helps to run a N.J. Alternative Treatment Center for medical marijuana, Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge.

The businessmen behind that facility, brothers David and Michael Weisser, have applied to start growing marijuana in the Empire State. The Weissers have pulled together a curious group to help win the contract. They include investment bankers, medical professionals and top-ranking cops. Former DEA and Interpol official Paul Higdon has joined the brothers Weisser along with Michael Balboni, a former New York State senator, whose last job was the Homeland Security Director for New York City.  

Garden State Dispensary is one of only two operational facilities and is the most popular among N.J.'s registered patients. But its marijuana is the most expensive in the country: $500 an ounce, plus tax. Still, at least they grow and sell. 

Another group that has held a N.J. license for medical marijuana since 2011, Compassionate Sciences Inc., has never served a single gram. Although it secured one of the coveted six contracts, they never got their permit to grow. But that is not stopping them from also trying to open up shop in New York.

That group had staked tens of millions of dollars on the operation and have even promised a grand opening in Bellmawr for over two years. Their trustees included heavy hitters in the pharmacy industry, investment banking, the brother of former N.J. Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, Webster Todd

The man leading Compassionate Sciences is Richard Taney. While he seems to have given up on the Garden State, Taney has minted a new company called PalliaTech and filed a much ballyhooed application last week for a permit in New York. What has earned the start-up so much ink in the Big Apple is that its team includes John O'Brien who was the director of the N.J. Medical Marijuana Program (NJMMP) for the N.J. Department of Health ... and another former cop.

O'Brien took the role as program director  in 2011 and resigned in April of 2015.

Before getting appointed to the NJMMP by the Christie administration, O'Brien spent 26 years with the New Jersey State Police. That also meant that O'Brien was double dipping. He gets an $83,000 per year pension but also collected a $84,000 per year salary as the "Pot Czar" at the DOH. Jim Baracia is now the head of the NJMMP; unsurprisingly, he also served with the NJ State Police for 19 years. 

Taney and O'Brien loudly claim that their experience in New Jersey should make them shoe-ins to be the next green carpetbaggers in New York. Yet their quiet acquiescence to the ultra-restrictive rules in Jersey did nothing to benefit qualifying patients. Taney's failure to open his doors should be a big red flag to the Empire State. 

Christie has been personally involved in curtailing the compassionate-use program at home. This was achieved through the state agencies he controls and also by placing his trusted operatives within the small cartel of medical marijuana companies. That move guaranteed little to no push-back against increasingly limited regulations. 

The relationships with the governor also appear to help the businesses financially.

The other operating N.J. cannabis facility is the Compassionate Care Foundation based in Egg Harbor. In 2014, it won a $357,000 "loan" from the N.J. Economic Development Authority to expand its operation. Heading the NJEDA at the time was Michelle Brown, one of Christie's closest partners. Brown was Christie's chief political strategist and appointment counsel. 

Just after the cash came in, Compassionate Care's then-CEO William Thomas (who was appointed by Christie to run the Governor's Wellness Initiative) quit. Thomas complained there weren't enough patients to turn a profit. Undeterred, David Knowlton, a former deputy commissioner at the Department of Health took over as CEO. Knowlton is a gadfly at the State House and a prominent political voice in Big Medicine. 

An interesting note is also that Christie - who often touts a no-new-taxes line - insisted that medical cannabis be sold with a sales tax. Meanwhile, over-the-counter ibuprofen, cold medications and even sleep aids along with regular prescription pharmaceuticals are sold tax free. This has driven up the cost even further for legal cannabis and forced many patients back into the underground market.

Christie said this week that if he became president, he would use resources to enforce federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized the plant. Since he has slipped down significantly in the crowded field of GOP contenders, this can only be a desperate ploy for some attention. While Republicans don't support legalization at the same level as Democrats and independents, many in the GOP have strong feelings about States' Rights. 

Considering the intimate relationship Christie has with NJ.. medical marijuana operators, it would be unthinkable that he would bring the federal hammer down on some of his closest friends in the cannabis business. 

Chris Goldstein is associate editor of Freedom Leaf magazine and co-chair of PhillyNorml. Contact him at chris@freedomisgreen.com.