N.J.'s failed medical marijuana law and other states eager to repeat it

Jay Lassiter takes his first ever legal toke of medical marijuana at his home in Cherry Hill December 18, 2012. With a license to use medical marijuana to ease the side effects of his HIV medications, he had just made the the two hour drive home from Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair, NJ's only medical marijuana dispensary, where he picked up a legal bag of 3/4 ounces of medical marijuana. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer )

New Jersey’s medical marijuana program is a failed experiment but one that Delaware and other states seem enthusiastic to repeat. The reality is that after years of delays and harsh over-regulation, NJ residents with serious illnesses and even state-issued marijuana ID cards continue to be arrested. Limited or no access is the issue.

Governor Chris Christie played doctor again last week making political spin out of therapeutic cannabis and the healthcare of one desperately ill child. Claiming to make changes passed by the Legislature to the NJ Medicinal Marijuana Program (NJ MMP) what Christie has eventually allowed will make little tangible difference for patients.

Right now the program is bogged down by a multiplicity of regulations that are micro-managed and almost hand-crafted by Christie and his counsel Kevin O’Dowd (whose wife Mary O’Dowd also happens to be the current Commissioner of the NJ Department of Health). Since 2010 they have consistently thrown science out the door, shut out the input of patients and relied almost exclusively on law enforcement consultants.  

For instance, the only concession Christie was willing to make in his recent conditional veto was to lift a ban on each Alternative Treatment Center growing more than three strains of cannabis. However, three years ago, Christie included a far-reaching and all-political regulation that remains firmly in place: the 10% cap on THC.

The arbitrary THC cap continues to apply to all strains of NJ medical marijuana. Patients along with medical and scientific experts have testified numerous times before legislative committees and the Department of Health about the THC cap, but to no avail. Many patients said they would seek better quality cannabis underground than participate in a program with a THC cap, defeating the entire purpose of compassionate access.

Arrests continue

The rest of the country may think the Garden State has gone green for marijuana, but for residents here who thought they would have convenient access to cannabis, nothing has changed; prohibition remains.

Joseph D‘Souza, a 54-year-old cancer and chemotherapy patient was surrounded by eight police cars in Bayonne last April, then searched by a dog. Joe was arrested for having a few grams of pot and a pipe. He’s one of New Jersey’s approximately 1,000 registered patients.  Although D’Souza has an ID card he was never able to obtain legal marijuana from the state’s single sometimes operating dispensary.  Caught with underground cannabis he had no legal protections.  Police simply ignored his ID card. Joe’s case was eventually settled with fines.

GreenLeaf Compassion Center in Montclair, NJ had a much ballyhooed grand opening in late 2012 but they had problems almost immediately. Charging patients high-grade street prices along with a special tax they failed to serve the entire patient population. Instead of trying for better access Greenleaf scaled back, opening sometimes just one day every two weeks to a handful of patients. After closing down completely for two months Greenleaf is now making appointments to patients only in their immediate vicinity. That move was a surprise to the NJ Department of Health.  No other Alternative Treatment Centers are open even part-time.

Mike Miceli suffers from Crohn’s Disease and is registered with the NJ MMP. He worked hard to find a doctor willing to participate in the nation’s only state-run physician registry for cannabis. Mike was also unable to get an appointment with Greenleaf for some legal weed. Miceli was arrested in Robbinsville during a traffic stop in May. He also had only a few grams of cannabis and a pipe. After facing drug prohibition and paraphernalia charges Miceli also ended up with fines. But if these patients had been parents or themselves minors the arrest itself could have been devastating.

“The program fluctuates between dysfunction and total failure,” said Ken Wolski, a registered nurse and director of The Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey. Wolski has been involved with the NJ legislation since 2005.

“In three and half years we’ve managed to get marijuana to about 125 patients. By what criteria would you say this is a successful program?”

Oddly, Governor Jack Markell of Delaware recently lauded NJ when he announced his new plan for a medical pot monopoly. Markell wants to open a single dispensary for the entire state.

Growing pains

Before Christie got involved with New Jersey’s medical marijuana law it already contained several unique limitations that always spelled problems. NJ was the first compassionate use law in the nation to pass without any provisions for home cultivation. Growing a small amount of marijuana in private is seen as the most essential form of access. But it also represents a holistic affront to hospital medicine and pharmaceutical culture.

Fifteen of the twenty-two largest pharmaceutical companies on the planet proudly call NJ a place of business, not to mention national health insurance groups, hospital conglomerates and academic research…and they all have a lobbying influence in Trenton.  

Forcing patients into the Alternative Treatment Centers has effectively cut off their access completely. All of the ATC owners and state agencies seem willing to wait. Yet in New Jersey if you peel back the politics and the press releases all too often you find powerful people making lots of money.

The complex machinations Governor Christie has energetically employed to rewrite the medical marijuana law and assure that trusted friends control every aspect of the program are no different. Such an effort would be unwarranted unless there is a political and monetary profit.  So how do people make money on a non-working program?

Who’s in the garden with MaryJane

The MMP is primarily overseen by the Department of Health, The Department of Consumer Affairs and the State Police. The commissioners are all Christie’s personal appointees. The current head of the NJ MMP, John O’Brien, is himself a 28-year veteran of the NJ State Police. I interviewed O’Brien for my freedomisgreen.com blog and he isn’t a bad person. But he is someone without any experiences with medical marijuana (or healthcare) who will dutifully follow the letter of the law/regulations … not necessarily innovate for patient access. Having a cop in charge of the pot is not only the perfect irony but the perfect demonstration of Christie’s approach to effectively continuing prohibition.

With a budget of more than $1 million annually some lucky state employees are certainly making a career out of a non-operating law.

The next Alternative Treatment Center is attempting to open in Egg Harbor Township. The “Cannabis Care Foundation” dove into the media spotlight last week saying they will provide free cannabis for any child registered in the NJ MMP. CCF seemed to spin right in step with Gov. Christie and that’s no surprise because the Governor and Compassionate Care Foundation’s CEO, William Thomas, are old friends.

Thomas leads an odd mix of pharmaceutical company and big-medicine businesspeople along with former prosecutors, law enforcement and gubernatorial administration appointees. They are very well funded and seem to be pursuing an entirely new model, one that may see providing cannabis to the actual patients as secondary.

The Press of Atlantic City took a look at the Egg Harbor ATC in 2012:

"The board of Compassionate Care Foundation is comprised of Thomas, who serves on Gov. Chris Christie’s Wellness Initiative and is a lead researcher for Leapfrog Due Diligence Cooperative, a company that investigates vendors for its employer members; David Knowlton, CEO of the New Jersey Healthcare Quality Institute, a nonprofit health care think tank, and a former deputy health commissioner for the state; Jeffery Warren, a principal with JR Market Strategies LLC, a health care consulting firm, who has served as a senior advisor to the National Pharmaceutical Council; Joanne Lange, who has helped develop and manage a database used by pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Astra-Zeneca to track the medical conditions of more than 2 million consumers."

On the CCF Advisory Board, according to the Atlantic City paper's report:

"T. Patrick Hill, a senior policy fellow at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University and a clinical research ethics consultant for the Cancer Institute of New Jersey and for the Neonatology Division of UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School

Dr. Ronald Librizzi, the chief of maternal-fetal medicine at Thomas Jefferson University School of Medicine and Virtua Health System, who is also a clinical associate professor at Jefferson

Suzanne Miller is a professor at Fox Chase Cancer Center where she is the director of Psychosocial and Biobehavioral Medicine Program, director of Behavioral Center of Excellence in Breast Cancer, director of the Intervention Development and Measurement Core of the Cancer Formation Service Research Consortium and director of the Behavioral Research Facility

Dr. Christopher Olivia, the president of West Penn Allegheny Health System and former president of Cooper Health System in Camden, who is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School

Dr. Alfred F. Tallia, professor and chair of the department of family medicine and community health at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at the UMDNJ."

On the surface it would seem that mainstream medicine has seen a big green light; somehow, reputable professionals have finally come around to the idea of whole-plant medical marijuana that is smoked, vaporized or eaten. But the real goal of the NJ ATC’s may be quite the opposite.

It would be hard for anyone to deny that the chemical components of marijuana, called cannabinoids, have profound medical benefits.  But pharmaceutical companies looking to exploit this plant have long been rebuffed by federal prohibition laws and marijuana’s Schedule I status. Studying natural cannabinoids and their impact on humans with medical conditions remains almost impossible.

Still, over the years drugs like Marinol have been introduced. Made of chemical analogues with no actual cannabis, Marinol is a 100% pure dose of synthetic THC. It is legally prescribed by doctors every day and easily picked up at any pharmacy.  Making new drugs like it would require studying natural cannabinoids to come up with synthetic replacements.

In the long-term Compassionate Care Foundation and the other ATCs simply need to grow and study cannabis plants. That data alone will prove valuable to the groups involved. If they can correlate those studies with real humans it would only increase the value. Greenleaf grew several crops of marijuana that never made it to patients. What they did with it in their back rooms before the plants were (ostensibly) destroyed remains a mystery.

When Compassionate Care Foundation and the other five ATC contracts were awarded I obtained their applications through an Open Public Records Act request. (Take a look at my findings here.)

CCF is not alone in their deep political ties.  News broke last week of a third ATC in Woodbridge, NJ obtaining their special permit to grow cannabis. The “Compassionate Care Centers of America Foundation Inc.” (now that’s a name that hints at expansion) has a prominent member, one Kevin Barry: an anesthesiologist who was chosen by Christie as chairman of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey board of trustees, as well as a former federal prosecutor who served in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Topping them all is the CEO of Compassionate Sciences Inc. Webster Todd, who is the brother of former Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman. In the 1970’s, Todd worked at the White House, the US State Department and served as chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. He was also a past-president of Frontier Airlines. Compassionate Sciences Inc. has not yet received their permit to grow marijuana.

According to their initial applications all of the winning ATCs had multimillion dollar liquid funding; as much as $70 million. Most of the contracted cannabis ATCs openly planned on making heavy investments into scientific equipment and research personnel.

The future of the No Garden States

Massachusetts, Delaware, New Hampshire and Illinois have now passed medical marijuana laws mirroring New Jersey’s. The outcome is taking a familiar form of delays and extreme regulations. This allows only the best funded, most connected interests to remain involved with legal cultivation and distribution.  And that may be the plan.

New Jersey’s severely limited law and Governor Christie’s lock-down regulations represent a turning point for the issue of medical marijuana nationally.  Previously, states had always incorporated broad legal protections for patients and brought existing medical cannabis cultivation above-ground.  But now politicians have a new corporate/pharmaceutical option.  By restrictively regulating cannabis today they may be able to replace plants with pills down the road. State medical marijuana programs like NJ could be utilized as small-scale, loosely disguised, state funded clinical research trials on cannabinoids. While real marijuana remains in federal Schedule I their synthetic analogues would be perfectly legal.  Registered patients would just be guinea pigs.

But maybe we can take Governor Chris Christie, his friend William Thomas, and all of the other deeply political and pharma minded business professionals involved with NJ medical marijuana at their word: They are just compassionate folks who don’t want to make any money, they just want to help sick people by growing and selling some weed.

Goldstein smoked his first joint in 1994 and has been working to legalize marijuana ever since. He serves on the Board of Directors at PhillyNORML has been covering cannabis news for over a decade. Contact Goldstein at chris@freedomisgreen.com or on Twitter @freedomisgreen