EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP South Jersey's first medical marijuana dispensary, which is expected to open Oct. 15, received an unusual approval for a $357,000 low-interest loan Thursday from the state Economic Development Authority so that it can expand.

"I'm elated. . . . This means the state recognizes us as a legitimate business," said Bill Thomas, CEO of Compassionate Care Foundation, which leases a former casino warehouse in Egg Harbor Township, near Atlantic City. He said the EDA had to consult with the Attorney General's Office for a legal opinion before approving the 4.65 percent loan.

The federal government still sees marijuana sales as illegal, but the Department of Justice issued guidelines last month saying it would not prosecute marijuana operations except in certain cases, such as when the proceeds are diverted to criminal enterprises or when the drug is shipped across state borders.

If the governor signs off on the loan, Thomas said, the money will be used to expand the dispensary's cultivation center and add equipment, including growing lights, tables, generators, and dehumidifiers. It also will allow the dispensary to hire 12 more people, up from the seven he currently employs.

With the funding, "we can triple our production from serving 500 patients a month to 1,500 a month," he said. Thomas said the dispensary has the capacity to serve 1,500 patients at one time but then would have to wait three months to replenish supplies. The loan would allow more growing cycles so that the dispensary can continuously serve this many patients.

Though only about 1,200 patients have registered with the medical marijuana program, that number is expected to increase as more dispensaries open. So far, only one is open, in North Jersey. - Jan Hefler