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Buzzkill: N.J. medical marijuana regulations are the nation's toughest

2009 File photo: Samuel Bagdorf of San Francisco lighting a marijuana pipe yesterday at a medical-marijuana clinic in that city.
2009 File photo: Samuel Bagdorf of San Francisco lighting a marijuana pipe yesterday at a medical-marijuana clinic in that city.Read more

Goldstein smoked his first joint in 1994 and has been working to legalize marijuana ever since. He serves on the Board of Directors at PhillyNORML and has been covering cannabis news for over a decade.

Today is is one of victory for marijuana on both coasts. Washington repealed pot prohibition for adults and medical cannabis is being dispensed for the first time in New Jersey. 

The heavily regulated Jersey-fresh cannabis highlights just how different marijuana laws are between states, especially now. Governor Christie and even the sponsoring legislators tout that New Jersey has the most "restrictive" cannabis law in the country.

Here are some of the unique limitations:

The No Garden State: New Jersey is the first to experiment with a compassionate use law that does not allow for any home cultivation. The reasoning is that seriously ill residents can rely on the regional Alternative Treatment Centers for all of their marijuana. In other states that have approved medical marijuana, "homegrown" is considered both safe and cost effective for patients. Medical gardening isn't just for Colorado or California; Some East coast states have allowed for patient cultivation and collective plots for years. Maine allows up to six plants per patient; Rhode Island up to twelve.

Alternative Treatment Centers: New Jersey patients are only allowed to legally obtain cannabis at one of the approved, non-profit ATCs. Contracts were granted by the state Department of Health (DOH) to six business groups but only one has managed to open: Greenleaf Compassion of Montclair. No word on the other five. States like Colorado offer a small business model with hundreds of tightly regulated businesses serving patients. Greenleaf is up for a challenge handling the launch of the program alone. Greenleaf staff told reporters they will see twenty patients per day by appointment and can only provide 1/2 ounce of cannabis for the first month.

Potency caps and strain limits: Regulations were created by the state DOH have some original "restrictions" on the plant itself. New Jersey is the first state to attempt a regulated cap of 10% on THC for all medical cannabis. This potency limit is a move that is tough to support with science. THC is the cannabinoid that causes the euphoric effect or 'high' but is also well studied as a medicine. Marinol is a synthetic THC pill that is approved by the FDA and currently prescribed by doctors - it is a 100% pure dose of THC. Marijuana and its component cannabinoids are non-toxic and non-lethal. DOH rules also say that centers can only grow three different strains of cannabis. The variety of different cannabinoid combinations is why an MS patient might prefer Cannabis Indica but a Crohn's patient finds better relief with Cannibis Sativa. No other state limits potency for THC (or any other cannabinoid) or the genetic variety of plants.

Doctor Registry: NJ DOH regs also created the nation's first registry for cannabis therapy physicians. Only these listed docs are allowed to recommend medical marijuana. No similar requirement is mandated for serious narcotic drugs like morphine. Since it opened in October 2010, about 175 doctors have signed up out of almost 34,000 that practice in New Jersey. Patients must use one of these just to apply for their own ID card. All other states allow any licensed physician to recommend cannabis to a resident who has a qualifying medical condition.

Limited conditions: The list of illnesses, diseases or conditions qualifying for cannabis in New Jersey is the shortest list in the country. So, fewer residents can even apply for the legal protections of the program. For example: New Mexico allows for PTSD and Oregon allows for chronic pain. Neither qualifies in New Jersey.

Three years after passage of the medical marijuana bill, at least New Jersey's medical cannabis is finally for sale. The highly original regulations may have a broader impact. Delaware's medical marijuana law is almost an exact copy. Watching Washington state legalize marijuana from our region is bittersweet; the freedom is 3000 miles away, but also closer than ever.

Contact Chris Goldstein at