In a move that underscored the Christie administration’s evolving support for the fledgling medical marijuana law, the Economic Developmental Authority today approved a $357,000 loan to a medicinal marijuana dispensary in Egg Harbor Township that plans to open in mid-October.
Bill Thomas, the chief executive of Compassionate Care Foundation Inc., said the dispensary would use the money to buy equipment and expand the area where it will cultivate the drug, add 12 jobs to the seven it had already created, and eventually produce enough for about 1,500 patients a month.
Within 10 years, said Thomas, a former medical researcher, the dispensary expected to generate about $2.8 million a year in state sales taxes.
The 15-0 vote by the development authority, a quasi-governmental agency connected to the Department of Treasury, “legitimizes this business in the eyes of the public,” he said.
“You don’t get much more mainstream than the Economic Development Authority,’’ said David Knowlton, a founder and chairman of the Compassionate Care board and president and chief executive of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, a research and consumer advocacy group.
Knowlton, a deputy health commissioner under Gov. Thomas H. Kean, said, “They are saying this is a mainstream public health issue.”
The development authority promotes business and job growth by offering bond financing, loans, business and tax incentives, and real estate development assistance, according to the authority’s website.
There are about 1,233 registered patients in New Jersey, according to the state Health Department, and Thomas predicted many more would sign up now that the second dispensary was close to opening. The Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair opened in December and has served about 130 patients a number of times.
“We know there is a demand by patients and this triples our production,” Thomas said after the approval of the grant. “We can go from serving 500 patients a month to 1,500 patients a month and that’s huge for the demand.”
Before the vote, the authority’s president and chief executive, Michele Brown, emphasized the loan was not being financed by taxpayers. In addition, Brown said the agency had sought a legal opinion from the Obama administration to ensure there wouldn’t be any legal issues since marijuana remains an illegal substance.
Thomas said the authority agreed to lend the dispensary the money at a 4.65 percent interest rate, to be paid within four years in the event the next president holds a different opinion about medicinal marijuana laws.
All six of the nonprofit dispensaries, or “alternative treatment centers,” selected by the state have struggled to raise money, find a community willing to host them, or meet what some have described as confusing and aggressive requirements set by Christie, who says the law he inherited is vulnerable to abuse. Patients and advocates are suing the state over what they describe as the governor’s reluctance to implement the law and allow severely ill people to get relief.
“We know there is a demand by patients and this triples our production.”
Anne Davis, an attorney from Brick who filed the lawsuit, said she was surprised by the authority’s vote and agreed it was a positive development in the program’s troubled history.
But Davis said the lawsuit still had merit because 3-1/2 years after the law’s passage, relatively few people can buy marijuana for medical purposes.
She said Christie’s recent signing of a law easing some restrictions barring severely ill children from using medical marijuana is a “modest” compromise.
“He has got his political aspirations and he is walking a very fine line right now,” David said.
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