Red tape could keep medicinal pot from legal users till 2013

Delaware’s new medical marijuana law is so loaded with red tape that experts in other states predict it could be at least 18 months before people who are seriously ill or suffering from chronic pain can obtain pot legally here.

Experiences of advocates in other states who have ventured into the risky business of growing and distributing a drug the federal government still deems illegal illustrate the bureaucratic hurdles that lie ahead.

Medical marijuana operators across the country say there are tremendous financial, logistical, societal and bureaucratic issues to resolve before marijuana seeds can even be planted legally.

Delaware’s law, Senate Bill 17, requires the Department of Health and Social Services to start seeking applications for operating three medical marijuana dispensaries by July 1, 2012, and issue licenses to the highest-scoring applicants in each county six months later.

If state officials use the entire 18 months allotted under the law, it could be spring 2013 before the first crop of marijuana buds are ready to be harvested, experts say.

“I would be shocked if they were able to implement one year after passage of the legislation,” said Steve DeAngelo, a dispensary operator in Oakland, Calif., and consultant for medical marijuana programs across the country.

When Gov. Jack Markell signed the medical marijuana bill into law in May, supporters envisioned million-dollar facilities selling the drug to Delawareans with qualifying conditions sometime next year.

Authors of Delaware’s law now acknowledge, however, it may take longer than originally projected to create a highly regulated industry from the ground up.

“It’s not something that any of us want DHSS to rush into,” said Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington South, who co-sponsored the law. “I want to make sure that we get it right from day one.”

In nearby New Jersey, where DeAngelo has been a consultant, 20 months have passed since the Garden State legalized medical marijuana and sales aren’t likely to begin until early next year — at the earliest.

“So far not a single patient ID card has been issued,” said Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana in New Jersey, where just a handful of doctors have registered with the state to be able to recommend marijuana usage.

Law criticized

Some marijuana advocates think Delaware’s law is a half-hearted attempt to join a growing national movement of 15 other states that have decriminalized the plant for medicinal purposes. The law, for example, excludes glaucoma from the list of qualifying illnesses, even though some studies have concluded marijuana usage can relieve intraocular pressure in the eye caused by glaucoma.

“Why would you exclude a perfectly viable option?” asked Eric S. Allen of Claymont, founder of a group that promotes the use of hemp from male marijuana plants for industrial products.

Unlike most states where medical marijuana is legal, Delawareans with qualifying illnesses — such as AIDS, cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder — aren’t allowed to grow their own marijuana at home.

New Jersey also isn’t allowing residents to grow their own pot, restricting its sale to six dispensaries across the 7,417-square-mile state of 8.7 million people.

“The problem with the Jersey law and the problem with the Delaware law is that it does not allow for home cultivation,” Wolski said.

Critics of Delaware’s law argue it unnecessarily delays the ability of sick residents to get marijuana until 2013.

“It is a less patient-friendly system,” Rick Thompson, editor of Michigan Medical Marijuana Magazine, said of Delaware’s law. “What they’ve done is they’ve created a cannabis monopoly in each of the three counties.”

Michigan’s law, approved by voters in a 2008 ballot initiative, allows registered patients and caregivers to grow up to 12 marijuana plants in their homes. Following a recent court decision that shut down Michigan’s commercial dispensaries, home-growing marijuana is now the only viable access for registered patients, Thompson said.

Delaware lawmakers have said passage of the law hinged on keeping the growing and sale of marijuana for medicinal purposes limited to a small number of licensed, not-for-profit operators that law-enforcement agencies could closely monitor.

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