Thursday, July 29, 2010

New Jersey’s Medical Marijuana Law Loses Planned Grower and Dispensers

Five months before its new medical marijuana law is set to take effect, New Jersey this week moved further away from having answers to basic questions about how the law will work — specifically, who will grow the marijuana and who will dispense it.

Gov. Chris Christie’s administration had been pursuing a plan to make Rutgers University the only approved cultivator of cannabis, and to make teaching hospitals the only places where patients could get it.

But on Thursday, Rutgers announced that it would not participate for fear of losing grants from the federal government. State officials said the hospitals had the same concern.

State laws legalizing medical marijuana are at odds with federal law. The Obama administration has stopped the practice of raiding marijuana dispensaries in those states, but the Drug Enforcement Administration remains reluctant to grant permission to grow the plants, even for medical research.

“This is genuinely something we were interested in doing,” said Robert M. Goodman, the executive dean of agriculture and natural resources at Rutgers. “We have agricultural stations; we have programs in medicinally reactive plants, in chemical biology, in pharmacy. It’s a potential new crop for the state, and we’re interested in promoting the state’s economy.”

But, he added, “it just puts too much at risk,” jeopardizing research grants, contracts, student aid or other funds from Washington.

Fourteen states have passed laws allowing medical use of marijuana, but New Jersey’s, signed in January, is in some ways the strictest. The law was written to prevent the proliferation of growers and dispensaries seen in states like California and Colorado, at first limiting the state to six dispensaries run by nonprofits, and it prohibits patients from growing the plants themselves.

New Jersey allows doctors to prescribe marijuana only for patients with terminal illness or a fairly limited set of specific, chronic conditions, and limits each person to two ounces per month, compared with as much as 24 ounces in other states.

Governor Christie, a Republican who took office days after the law was enacted, has sought to make it still more restrictive in the way it is carried out. The administration is supposed to put regulations in place for carrying out the law by Oct. 1, and the law is scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1.

Michael Drewniak, the governor’s chief spokesman, said Friday that the administration still expected to have dispensaries ready to open in 2011.

“As we’ve said all along, we’ve been considering other options beyond the Rutgers plan,” Mr. Drewniak said, “and we will continue working diligently to implement a high-quality and secure program.” He declined to elaborate.

The governor is angry about the university’s decision, according to officials who were granted anonymity to comment on private discussions, and so are some legislators. Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, a Democrat from Mercer County who was one of the primary sponsors of the legalization bill, said “the university is chickening out” by not testing federal authorities’ willingness to grant a waiver.

State Senator Nicholas P. Scutari, a Democrat from Linden who was the other main sponsor, said that Mr. Christie wanted too much control over the program and that the state would have no choice but to approve private growers.

“We’ve known this was going to be a concern for Rutgers from the get-go, but the administration indicated no, it’s not going to be a problem,” Mr. Scutari said. And the hospitals, he said, “have got the same exact issue.”

The New Jersey Council of Teaching Hospitals declined to comment, but several people briefed on the discussions said the hospitals wanted some kind of guarantee that they would not be jeopardizing federal money.

Mr. Christie has said he had concerns about how to carry out the law with enough security. At his request, the Legislature delayed putting the law into effect for 90 days.

The plan to use Rutgers and teaching hospitals would have given the state far more direct control over the program than the Legislature intended, but for the most part, lawmakers said they were amenable to the idea if it would work.


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