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Delaware's first marijuana dispensary opens

Delaware has become the second state in the region to make its debut in the burgeoning medical marijuana industry.

First State Compassion Center in Wilmington, Delaware's first medical marijuana dispensary. JAN HEFLER / Inquirer Staff
First State Compassion Center in Wilmington, Delaware's first medical marijuana dispensary. JAN HEFLER / Inquirer StaffRead more

Delaware has become the second state in the region to make its debut in the burgeoning medical marijuana industry.

A long line formed Friday when its first dispensary, First State Compassion Center, opened in a former tile market in a bustling Wilmington industrial park. CannaCare Docs, a company that employs physicians to certify eligible patients, fielded questions from curious passers-by a few doors away.

New Jersey led the way in the area when it legalized medical marijuana in 2010. Delaware followed in 2011. Pennsylvania fell behind while nearly half the states nationwide adopted marijuana programs. Some Pennsylvania senators have said they plan soon to push a stalled bill with bipartisan support onto the floor for debate.

The differences between the programs and dispensaries in New Jersey and Delaware are stark.

In Delaware the cost is about $100 less, per ounce, and is not taxed.

Paul Hyland, the state public health administrator for Delaware who supervises the program, said First State was charging about $350 to $400, depending on the strain. "They had one or two types of plants fail, so the price was somewhat inflated . . . today compared to what we may see in the future," he said Friday.

First State's website also says prices will be discounted for seniors, veterans, and low-income patients. Only Delaware residents may enroll in the program.

Mark Lally, the dispensary president, did not return calls for comment.

In New Jersey, an ounce at the three dispensaries goes for $500 to $550, plus tax. Though New Jersey does not tax other medications, Gov. Christie decided cannabis should be subject to the state's 7 percent sales tax.

Patients with post-traumatic stress disorder are eligible in Delaware but not in New Jersey. Christie's administration rejected a petition last year to include PTSD patients and he has said several times that he does not want to expand the program.

Christie, a Republican, had his administration develop stringent regulations when he inherited the medical marijuana law five years ago. Patient advocates said the effect is that those who are severely ill have had difficulty obtaining the drug. The advocates also complained that the administration took several years to grant approvals needed for the dispensaries to open.

Only three of the six dispensaries that are planned have opened, and they serve about 4,000 patients. South Jersey's only location is in Egg Harbor Township, near Atlantic City, more than an hour away from the more densely populated area near Philadelphia, the advocates say.

In Delaware, 340 residents have registered to purchase cannabis after they obtained certification from their doctors, Hyland said. "This [program] opens a new chapter in our relationship with patients," he said. "We're very excited that the dispensary is open."

On opening day, patients began lining up before 7 a.m., though the dispensary did not open until 10:30, Hyland said. "Having that many people wait in line sort of breaks my heart a little bit because we're not talking about a healthy population," he said, adding that some arrived in wheelchairs.

Hyland said about 100 others had applied for marijuana cards and were in various stages of a 60-day processing period.

The maximum purchase amount in Delaware is six ounces a month. In New Jersey, it is 2 ounces. New Jersey dispensaries also sell marijuana buds only, while the one in Delaware offers the buds, capsules, tinctures or extracts, and oil-infused strips.

Unlike Colorado and some West Coast states, neither New Jersey nor Delaware allows edibles such as brownies or cannabis-infused gummy bears or candies. "The law is silent on them, but they bring in a whole series of safety issues, and we didn't feel we were in the position to take them on," Hyland said. He said other states had experienced problems establishing dosing standards with edibles. "This needs more study before we will be comfortable with it."

In New Jersey, Christie has said he opposes brownies and candies because they could be shared with those who are not patients and could fall into children's hands. Nearly two years ago, however, he signed a bill allowing syrups and pills to be produced for children who need cannabis but cannot smoke marijuana buds. His administration has yet to approve a manufacturing process to make these products available.

Both states issue marijuana patient cards to children with serious illnesses. Delaware's 2011 law did not allow children to participate, but after parents lobbied the legislature, Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, signed a bill last week to change that. New Jersey dispensaries sell only cannabis buds, but parents have purchased them for their sick children and converted them into homemade oils to control seizures and other ailments.

In contrast, Delaware parents or guardians will only be allowed to buy cannabis oils for sick children that must contain a low percentage of THC, the ingredient that makes users high. Hyland said these products are expected to be available in the fall.

Both states include patients with cancer, multiple sclerosis, AIDS/HIV, and seizure disorders on the cannabis list. Delaware, includes patients with debilitating chronic pain, a condition patient advocates in New Jersey have lobbied for. New Jersey's list of qualifying conditions includes glaucoma; Delaware's does not.

Each program took years to implement. Christie and Markell initially delayed the programs, saying they were concerned that the federal government would prosecute participants. After receiving assurances that the Obama administration would not punish those who adhere to the state programs' regulations, both governors moved ahead, but neither has fully embraced what his state's marijuana laws had envisioned.

While Christie created tough regulations and approval processes that have prevented all the state's six permitted dispensaries from opening in a timely fashion, Markell announced that he would allow the opening of only one of the three dispensaries that Delaware's law called for. He has said First State would operate under a pilot program for one year.

Next year, he said, he will evaluate whether the two others may open.