Weeks after New Jersey officials drew criticism from patients and others that they were delaying the state's two-year-old medical marijuana program, the Department of Health and Senior Services is allowing the first seeds to be planted.
The department announced Monday that the Greenleaf Compassion Center, in Montclair, Essex County, was given a permit to begin growing cannabis for people with certain serious diseases and debilitating conditions.
But Julio Valentin, a Greenleaf owner, said he was not willing to start sowing until state officials create a registry of eligible patients or give written assurances that it will be published within 30 days.
"I'm hesitant," Valentin said in an interview. He said he feared that if there were any more delays in the program, the crop could "go bad while sitting on the shelf."
After issuing the permit, the state posted online the list of 109 physicians registered to prescribe marijuana.
But Valentin said that wasn't enough. A few weeks ago, he said, the company's CEO, Joseph Stevens, threatened to quit the program because he became "really frustrated" with a "program that never started."
Valentin said negotiations began with state officials but they were unwilling to say when the patient registry would be completed.
Donna Leusner, department spokeswoman, said in an e-mail Monday: "The patient registry will be available in several weeks."
In January 2010, in the final days of Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine's administration, New Jersey became the 15th state to approve the dispensing of medical marijuana.
Though the federal government still sees the drug as illegal, the Attorney General's Office has issued memos saying it will not prosecute dispensaries that provide marijuana only to patients and that comply with state law.
Valentin said the permit to grow cannabis was "a step in the right direction" but he still had lingering doubts about whether the department was moving forward with the program as quickly as it could.
"We're here for the patient, and that's what's really hurtful - that we can't do anything for them," he said.
Greenleaf is one of six nonprofits that were given preliminary approval a year ago to grow marijuana and operate a dispensary. After it begins growing, the company will need another permit to start selling the drug to patients.
Two dispensaries have been designated for South Jersey. One has had trouble getting zoning approvals from towns after angry residents showed up at meetings to object to the novel business operation. The other recently got approval for a site in Egg Harbor Township, near Atlantic City, after similar setbacks in Westampton, Burlington County.
In a news release about the permit, Health Department Commissioner Mary E. O'Dowd said: "The department is committed to ensuring that medicinal marijuana is safely and securely available to patients as quickly as possible. . . . Today's action authorizes Greenleaf to grow medicinal marijuana - which generally takes 3 to 4 months - so that once a permit for its dispensary is issued, medicinal marijuana will be available without delay."
Earlier this month, a Medford man with Crohn's disease and muscle spasms - two ailments that qualify for marijuana treatments - sued the department and its top officials, saying they had "actively interfered with the implementation" of the program.
Rich Caporusso and his doctor, Jeffrey S. Pollack, a Mays Landing internist who is on the state's physician registry for the program, filed a lawsuit that asks the courts to replace O'Dowd as head of the program, and for new deadlines to get it running.
Caporusso said he was suffering and could get relief from marijuana without the side affects and sedation of pharmaceuticals.
A state spokesman last week denied any interference with the program and said "the state is actively moving forward to make this program a reality."
William J. Thomas, CEO of the Compassionate Care Foundation, which has zoning approvals to operate in an industrial area in Egg Harbor, said he didn't believe he would be given a permit to begin growing for at least 90 days.
That's because he and his associates are undergoing extensive four- to six-month background checks conducted by investigators with the state Gaming Commission.
"We're being vetted as if we are casino executives. They are making sure no organized crime is involved," he said.
Thomas said that he, his board members, lenders, and employees were undergoing the investigation.
"I am not complaining, but it's something that would have been good a year ago," he said, explaining his frustration with various setbacks and delays.
Leusner said in an e-mail: "The department makes no apologies for thoroughly vetting the owners and operators of ATCs [alternative treatment centers, or dispensaries]. We feel safe and secure operation of this program is in the best interests of patients, the public and the ATCs."
Gov. Christie, who has said he would not have signed the bill into law, has said he doesn't want New Jersey to become like some Western states where he said marijuana dispensaries had not been adequately controlled. He said he wants New Jersey to be more stringent and to become a model for others.