South Jersey board says no to marijuana site

The Maple Shade zoning board voted against a proposal Wednesday night to open a medical-marijuana dispensary at an outlet on Route 73. The company seeking to operate the facility, Compassionate Sciences, said it would assess other options. At a meeting attended by about 50 people, the proposal drew tough questioning from the board. Representatives of Compassionate Sciences, one of six nonprofits approved by the state Health Department in March, were asked questions ranging from what traffic the store would generate to whether patients would be driving through town under the influence.

“My wife has cancer, so I know what you’re talking about,” zoning board member Ed Loomis said. “But there’s a time and a place.” None of the approved facilities has opened yet, as they seek retail space and negotiate with zoning boards, according to the Health Department. Compassionate Sciences has been meeting with officials of the town of 19,000 residents to address concerns about an outlet on Route 73, spokesman Andrei Bogolubov said. “The property is a ways from residences and not near schools or playgrounds,” he had said. “We were looking at properties with the idea it was right for the community.”

Many of those present took the microphone to speak on subjects ranging from marijuana’s medical benefits to whether Maple Shade was destined to become the “pot capital of New Jersey.” Jim Miller, an activist with the New Jersey Coalition for Medical Marijuana, argued that forbidding the dispensary would mean patients would suffer. “Please, don’t make people wait any longer,” he said. But for many residents, the prospect of a dispensary in town was a non-starter.

“I can’t believe this is going on,” Kelly Freels said. “I’m here to say, not in Maple Shade, not in our backyard.” In California, there has been a renewed crackdown by federal authorities, who last week warned more than a dozen marijuana dispensaries to shut down or face legal action by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Targeted were large-scale operations that prosecutors accused of using the state’s relatively permissive medical-marijuana laws as a cover to sell marijuana on a wider scale. New Jersey officials maintain that their laws, considered some of the most restrictive in the country, will avoid the tangles with federal law enforcement that have occurred elsewhere.

“New Jersey set up a regulatory framework that makes its medical-marijuana program a very narrow and medically based program that will not lend itself to the abuses that we’ve seen, particularly in California,” said Donna Leusner, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Senior Services. So far, 16 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes, with regulations varying widely. But it is California, where thousands of dispensaries are operating under a system that even one marijuana advocate called “totally unregulated,” that has prompted criticism of the movement and some say slowed it.

Before giving the go-ahead on New Jersey’s medical-marijuana program in July, Gov. Christie put the initiative on hold, saying he was looking into whether the Garden State might be subjecting itself to future federal raids. Christie, a former U.S. attorney, decided that New Jersey would be safe. But some marijuana advocates, watching the events in California, are wondering whether all bets are off. “New Jersey’s rules are tighter than most of the states. Whether that’s sufficient to dissuade the feds from coming in, nobody’s really sure,” said Keith Stroup, an attorney with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “None of us anticipated the Obama administration was going to make the moves they have in California.”

For now, those operations approved in New Jersey are moving ahead. Last week, Compassionate Care Foundation CEO Bill Thomas, who received state approval for a dispensary in March, said he was moving toward opening in a former lighting factory in Westampton, Burlington County, by February – with plans to serve about 2,000 customers a year. But Colleen Begley, a Rutgers-Camden student from Moorestown who described herself as a medical-marijuana advocate, wondered whether the dispensaries didn’t face a tough road in finding locations to operate.

“It’s going to be hit and miss,” she said. “A lot of it’s going to be how you present it. People, there’s a lot to tell them.”

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