Patients protest lack of medical marijuana in New Jersey

TRENTON — Two years ago, Stephen Cuspilich was celebrating the successful passage of New Jersey’s medical marijuana law. But over the last two years, he’s grown more and more frustrated by the overly restrictive rules governing the state’s program and the myriad delays to its implementation and launch. He said he still must purchase pot illegally to ease his suffering from Crohn’s disease. “I’m taking it. I don’t care what the state says,” Cuspilich said Thursday from the Statehouse steps, where he was part of a small group of New Jersey patients and advocates that gathered to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the unimplemented law’s signing. “I can’t afford to wait any longer. At the rate they’re going, it will be 10 years,” the Southampton resident said, citing the scores of additional prescription medications he will be forced to take as an alternative to cannabis. Cuspilich’s case is hardly unusual, according to Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey. Wolski said there are thousands of New Jersey patients like him who must continue to obtain the drug illegally to ease their suffering, despite the law’s approval two years ago.

A spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, which is charged with launching and overseeing the state’s medical marijuana program, said the agency remains committed to implementing the law responsibly. “The department is implementing the law and associated regulations and remains committed to its obligations in that regard,” spokeswoman Donna Leusner said. There are no open New Jersey dispensaries where patients can legally acquire the drug. Six nonprofit groups were designated nearly a year ago by the Department of Health and Senior Services to grow and dispense medical marijuana to registered patients, but only one of the six so far have been successful in obtaining local approval for a site. Two groups sought approval for locations in Burlington County but were denied by local land use boards. Earlier this month, the Westampton Land Development Board rejected an application by Compassionate Care Foundation Inc. to set up a growing and dispensing operation in a warehouse on Hancock Lane, near Route 541 and the Exit 5 interchange of the New Jersey Turnpike.

In October, another group, Compassionate Sciences Inc., was prohibited by the Maple Shade Zoning Board from locating a dispensary in a vacant furniture store on Route 38. Boards in Camden and Upper Freehold also have rejected medical marijuana proposals. Wolski and other advocates place the blame squarely on Gov. Chris Christie, the former U.S. attorney, who inherited the medical marijuana law from his Democratic predecessor, Jon S. Corzine. Christie’s administration crafted the regulations for how the state program will run. He also delayed its implementation to try to gain assurances from the U.S. Justice Department that federal prosecutors would not target the operators. Christie has called the legislation legalizing medical marijuana “flawed,” and said he will not force municipalities to accept medical marijuana facilities within their borders if they don’t believe they are appropriate. “Gov. Christie has delayed and obstructed this law since he took office,” Wolski said.

He called on the Legislature to amend the law to permit limited home cultivation and “collective gardens” so that sick patients can gain access quickly. His organization also wants the state to launch its patient registry so patients with qualifying illnesses can be afforded some legal protection. “No patient should ever have to suffer needlessly, and no patient should have to go to jail for following their doctor’s advice,” Wolski said. He said chronic pain should be added to the list of ailments that qualify a patient to legally obtain the drug. Other patient advocates promised legal action to get the medical marijuana program up and running. “It’s time for the government to obey the law,” Moorestown attorney William Buckman said at the protest. “Medical marijuana users should not be put in jail while those who allow this delay break the law.” Compassionate Care Foundation CEO Bill Thomas has said his organization plans to sue to overturn the Westampton board’s denial.

Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, R-12th of Little Silver, has said he intends to introduce legislation that would make medical marijuana a protected crop under the Right to Farm Act. Doing so would make it harder for municipalities or their land use boards to turn away an application for a medical marijuana facility. Jay Lassiter, a Cherry Hill resident who is HIV positive, said towns have been shortsighted in their denials. “Local folks, here’s an opportunity to have something in your community that will help people and create revenue. What’s wrong with you?” Lassiter asked.

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